Columns / Positive Cultures

The power of everyday leadership

September 5, 2013
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A modest bit of business leadership writing is aimed at the frontline manager — and thus at the craft of daily leadership. One of those books was “The One Minute Manager,” written awhile back by the academician-turned-consultant Ken Blanchard. Dr. Blanchard’s little book does at least two things that I think make a valuable contribution to the practice of daily leadership.

First, and most critically, it asserts that the task of leading well on a daily basis is not a mysterious, impossibly difficult task, requiring rare and special gifts, and years upon years of practice for its successful attainment. Indeed, a core premise of the little book is that brief (one-minute) interactions, following a couple of simple and easily mastered guidelines, add up to effective daily leadership.

Second, and more specifically, it identifies constructive performance feedback in relationship to agreed upon goals as a critical task of daily leadership, one that is really pretty simple, but often not done very well.

Doing it daily

Numerous examples support the notion of the critical importance of daily leadership:

  • Many of the questions in the popular Gallup Survey of Employee Engagement (Q12) relate to the role of the supervisor. Who takes the lead in setting expectations at work? Who is the main point of contact for getting employees the proper tools and equipment to do their job? Who is (or should be) the primary dispenser of deserved praise and recognition? Who is in the best position to care about you as a person (not just your outputs), encourage your development, value your opinions, talk to you about your progress...? The Q12 is largely asking, “How does your immediate supervisor do his/her job?”
  • While there are many reasons why an individual might quit a job, a variety of survey tools have identified the single most common reason as “poor relationship with my supervisor.”
  • A substantial body of research has yielded an interesting figure about the proportion of supervisors and managers who are seen by their organizations as poor fits. The ballpark figure that shows up in the research literature is “around 50%.”
  • It was noted years ago that a primary reason for the failure of many organizational reinvention efforts was failure to actively involve first-line supervisors in the change. Left on the sidelines, many supervisors felt threatened (in some cases for good reason), and/or lacked the knowledge and skills to go from “work boss” to “team facilitator.”

To quote the title of a brilliant article from awhile back, “Why do supervisors resist employee involvement”? After all, they are the critical levers, the linchpins between workers and management. Too often they are left out of the change process, jeopardizing the whole effort.

Even if workers are encouraged by top management to become more self-directed, or work in process improvement teams, etc., if their immediate supervisor does not support or even understand the change effort, how successful and durable will it be? By the same token, to engage supervisors themselves directly in a change effort is to maximize its chances for durable success.

Centers of organizational gravity

Supervisors and middle managers are critical to the daily health and functioning of the organization. Other things equal, the better they do their daily leadership job, the better the organization performs, and the higher the quality of work life for the folks they lead.

Before I began my consulting career, I naively assumed the poor supervision I had personally experienced at times as an employee was somehow the exception, not the rule. My consulting experience quickly convinced me that my own work experience was the norm. I saw poor daily leadership as an unfortunate common denominator in the organizations I aimed to help.

Many supervisors are put in the role based on seniority or formal credentials, not leadership potential, and are largely left to their own devices to figure out what to do and how to do it. Some figure it out, and some don’t.

Friendly and competent

I read a recent Harvard Business Review article that summarized research addressing the issue of leadership effectiveness. The bottom-line conclusion was that two key variables influenced the extent to which managers were perceived as highly effective leaders.

One was warmth, a global interpersonal variable related to how I come across to others — friendly, caring and approachable, or not.

The other variable was strength, a gauge of how competent I am seen to be at getting things done. The warmth variable more strongly influenced first impressions of the leader, and determined whether the leader’s strength would be accepted and valued, or feared and resisted.

Researchers have found that people tend to choose competence-related training more than warmth-related, interpersonal skills training for themselves. But when asked to identify the training that they would recommend for others (coworkers or bosses), they tilt strongly toward the warmth-related, interpersonal skills training.

I have had a similar experience in running leadership assessment centers. When participants are asked to profile the qualities of an ideal leader, they emphasize the warmth-related attributes. When separately asked to identify skills they themselves want to build, they mostly emphasize technical, competence-related skills.

Where the positive work gets done

Positive cultures are designed from the top of the organization, in acts of strategic leadership; positive cultures are enacted and realized down where the work gets done, in positive acts of daily leadership. Leadership at both levels is essential to truly high-performing organizations. 

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