Whenever I think of Leadership, images of power, single mindedness, determination come to mind. We seem to judge our leaders, political, business, military and otherwise by these standards when in fact effective leadership is so much more.
Wikipedia describes leadership as ‘a research area and a practical skill encompassing the ability of an individual or organisation to “lead” or guide other individuals, teams, or entire organisations.’ This still doesn’t fully encompass what it’s like to be a leader in practice.
Throughout my career, both as part of my voluntary commitment and in the world of work, I have held leadership positions for small teams of between 5 and 10, and large, multi-site teams working across many disciplines. Each role has required some of the same skills, and many that are unique to that post.
Leaders come in all shapes, sizes and approaches, but what makes them effective is their relevance to the task at hand. When a leader is seen as effective is usually when they are able to motivate and inspire the team. They may not necessarily be as skilled or as knowledgeable about the processes and practices as others in the team, but they create trust and are able to build a vision that the team can buy into.
The best leaders I have worked with have genuinely cared about their team, made time to get to know them and find out their motivations and aspirations. They have offered support and guidance, but when all else fails, they have not been afraid to make difficult decisions and let people go. They do what is best for the team and the individual, and rarely for themselves.
My first leadership role came in my mid-twenties and looking back I was completely unprepared for it. I had little experience of learning from others in similar roles and didn’t have a mentor. However, with the naivety of youth I did things my way and seemed to get acceptable outcomes – my team was successful and they seemed to like me. I knew I didn’t have all the skills I needed but was optimistic enough to think this didn’t matter. I was a little like Bambi on Ice!
In the intervening years, I have been lucky enough to work for and with some amazing leaders, and also some really awful ones. I have probably learnt as much from both sorts . The fundamental difference for me though has been their interest or otherwise in their teams. Those who engaged and consulted with their teams to devise strategy and solve problems were those I would follow to the ends of the earth. Those who reached their decisions without input from those around them and didn’t take time to get to know their team lost my confidence and loyalty.
Today, I still love being in a leadership role – I relish the challenges it raises, the opportunity to create shared visions and goals and to see the team develop and grow. I am thrilled when we achieve our shared goals and feel the disappointment when things don’t go right.
I love to watch people develop, gain new skills, confidence and sense of self-worth. Some of the most successful people I know have come into my team without experience, skills or confidence – to see them flourish, take on new roles and grow is so rewarding. Similarly, whilst I hate to lose valuable people, I also get a sense of achievement that we have helped shape someone so they can move on to new challenges or aspire to greater things.
I’m not good at too much detail and can get bored, so the frequently shifting sands that go with leadership suit me well. It can be frustrating when you have planned to tackle a particular task, be it writing a report, researching a new project or tackling the budget, but an urgent issue needs your attention and your best laid plans go out of the window.
I sometimes think the uncertainty of my workload makes me more efficient as I know if I get side-tracked, I may never get time to do the most important pieces of work. However, my door is almost always open, and I appreciate that my team feel able to share with me their worries, concerns or aspirations and this helps me keep up to date with what’s going on and how the team are feeling.
So back to the Bambi on Ice comparison. Leadership still feels much more like Bambi on Ice than the image of an army general. For a split second, all four legs are gliding smoothly in the same direction, then out of nowhere, for no particular reason, all four legs are going in different directions and you’re heading for thin ice which you may or may not fall through.
You think you are in control and everything is going smoothly, but in a split second, thing change and as the leader, you need to know how to react, how to guide your team away from the thin ice and back to the safety of the shore without too much damage. It is this ability to adapt to changing situations, be decisive and still provide the support and guidance your team needs that makes great leaders.
I suspect that with all their training and experience, even the most formidable leaders have times when they hit that thin piece of ice with all four skates in opposite directions. A successful leader is able to respond and know that despite this hurdle, their team will be pull together to avoid the ice or if they fall in,work together to get back to shore in one piece. In turn, the leader acts with humility, acknowledges the mistake, accepts responsibility and works with the team to repair the damage.