What leaders really do?
Once upon a time, when I thought I wanted to work in HR, I read a much reprinted article by John P Kotter, called “What leaders really do” (Havard Business Review, May-June 1990). In plain English Kotter described a step by step approach to helping people deliver the organisation’s vision e.g. involving people in decision-making, being a good role model, providing coaching and feedback, and praising people when they were successful. At the time Kotter made complete sense to me, and I was grateful to him for making leadership seem so simple.
Twenty years later, when I read the article again, I was nearly sick. This is a good thing, because it shows how much my ideas about leadership have changed since I began working in leadership and sustainability. How could I have imagined that this mechanical approach to managing people was the real deal?
In Praise of the Incomplete Leader
Somewhere between my first and second readings of Kotter, I came across an article co-authored by Peter Senge, called ‘In Praise of the Incomplete Leader’. It began with the words ‘No leader is perfect’. I became very excited. ‘The Incomplete Leader’ describes four leadership competencies and why they matter: making sense of the world, relating to people, communicating your vision, and inventing ways to make it happen.
Leadership beyond organisations
What I instantly liked was the framing of leadership as a way of thinking and acting, a process of being and becoming. ‘Incomplete Leadership’ is not tied to an organisational setting. It can work in teams, partnerships, networks and communities. With its strong emphasis on creating shared narratives, ‘Incomplete Leadership’ is a joint quest for the best possible way forward. It’s OK not to have all the answers, provided we keep asking questions, and telling stories to raise our spirits.
What real leaders really do
Since I discovered the ‘Incomplete Leader’, I’ve thought a lot about what we can do to provide real leadership in a complex and uncertain world. The list that follows is incomplete, but that’s OK!
- Are motivated by serving other people, their community, their organisation, their favourite cause
- Are curious about the future
- Scan the horizon for opportunities, innovations, and threats
- Question their assumptions and beliefs
- Listen and observe constantly
- Are comfortable with complexity
- Gather information from multiple sources. They talk to everyone they meet. They subscribe newspapers and magazines, have a twitter account, and read blogs
- Invest time in building diverse personal and professional networks because they know the value of diversity
- Explore many as many options as possible before making up their minds
- Suspend judgment on hearing about a new way of doing things
- They like to experiment because it is fun. They have courage, and they are willing to take risks
- Take time out to think and reflect, perhaps go for walk or swim. They may keep a diary, a journal, or a write a blog
- Encourage different points of view and involve people in decision-making
- Are open and honest about making mistakes. They treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn and share what they discovered with others
- Take responsibility for their actions
- Want to learn and they want other people to learn, too. They give and receive feedback freely
- Enjoy what they do. Real leaders make a positive difference to the lives of other people. People like to work with them because they are life enhancers
London, 18 August 2013