Donald Rumsfeld said that we go to war with the army we have, not the army we wish we had. Similarly, Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, said he calls the plays for the players he has on the field, not the players he could have or wishes he had. Often, managers get distracted, wishing their employees had skills, talents and drive that are more idyllic than reality. After 25 years in management, I hold this truth to be self-evident: No manager, supervisor or employee is perfect. Each person, style and approach to leadership has opportunity and risk of failure. The best plans fail, and the worst plans sometimes succeed.
Each fall, I teach an organizational behavior class to college juniors and seniors. Their first paper is an executive summary of a leader. The purpose is to identify the leader’s style and review its pros and cons. The biggest struggle for the students is to focus on the weaknesses of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi or their cherished high school tennis coach. They choose their leader because he or she stood out for them as extraordinary. It’s the first paper for the term, so their writing and focus is more idealistic. As the term progresses, we discover that leadership is messy. Even great leaders are flawed. Success wasn’t always deliberate, but it happened because the individual was striving toward a purposeful goal or outcome.
The first step in leadership development is recognizing that perfection is far from achievable and perhaps not even desirable. Leadership is an acceptance that your approach may be wrong, you may have the wrong data and you may come up with the wrong conclusion. More importantly, leadership is figuring out that someone else may be right! We’ve all worked for a leader or interacted with someone who has to be right. When the drive to be right outweighs the drive to get it right, leadership evaporates.
Victor Vroom and Arthur Jago wrote that leadership is the process of influencing others. I like this definition because it highlights that leadership is a process, and it’s not a magic wand. By position, authority or title, leadership, at its best, is about the ability for one person to influence another, to have an impact and to persuade another toward a specific outcome.
I’d like to expand on Vroom and Jago’s definition and add that leadership is the process of purposefully influencing others. All too often, we focus our daily activity on completing tasks, solving problems and avoiding failure. Our conversations with our employees are more tactical and practical than visionary and innovative. We often address what is in front of us and slowly move the dial. Ask anyone who has direct reports how often they spend a specific block of time thinking about how to be a better leader. My experience is that most will respond with zero to very limited time.
Our goal as L&D professionals is to transform everyday leaders to think more about their effectiveness. The key to leadership effectiveness is generally just getting in the game and being purposeful in one’s application. Even if a strategy fails, we learn by what didn’t work and have the opportunity to tweak the approach. Have leaders try these steps:
- Add leadership time to your weekly calendar, and use the time to develop and evaluate your leadership.
- Read books and articles, listen to audiobooks and presentations, and attend workshops. All major league athletes practice their craft; become a major league leader.
- Talk to other leaders about their approach. Listen to what works, and listen to what doesn’t work.
- Don’t be afraid to fail; if being a leader were easy, everyone would do it!
Purposeful leadership means having a plan and executing a strategy. It means evaluating if something works and attempting to understand why. Great organizations have great leaders. Great products and services fail with poor leaders. We know the correlation is there; it’s our job as leaders to execute and evaluate. Leadership is the purposeful process of influencing others. Go out and be an influential, purposeful leader!