Friday, September 21, 2012

The Leader's Leverage

Using a lever and properly placed fulcrum, you can lift an object that would be impossible to move by your own direct effort. This is an apt metaphor for leadership. As a principal, branch manager, department head, project manager, or team leader, you are expected to get everyone in your group working together toward a common goal. Yet they bring differing skills, attitudes, opinions, personalities, and experiences to the task.

How do you meld them into an effective team? Without some kind of leverage, this would be impossible. There's only one of you and several (perhaps many) of them. The natural inclination of most of them is to do whatever they want to do rather than what's in the best interests of the team. So somehow you need to harness their divergent contributions in a way that enables concerted effort.

Defining a Leader

Before describing how leaders apply leverage, let's clarify what a leader is. The essence of leadership is getting others to follow. You don't become a leader by appointment, regardless of your position or responsibilities. The role of leader must be earned. People follow leaders because they want to, not because they have to. Sure, a leader may exert his or her authority at times (see below), but generally you don't become a true leader by bossing people around.

With that context, I define a leader as follows:
  • A leader is one who engages the willing involvement of others in creating positive change.
The first key aspect of this definition is "willing involvement." An effective leader, as noted, doesn't resort to coercion or manipulation to get people to follow. They follow of their own volition. A leader earns their voluntary commitment.

Leadership also, by definition, involves "positive change." A leader isn't needed to maintain the status quo; a manager is sufficient (not to diminish the role of manager). Change is an imperative of leadership because growth, improvement, and innovation—which are undoubtedly desired by every company—all involve change.

Three Levels of Leverage

Leverage relates to the leader's ability to mobilize others to take specific actions, work in cooperation, and accomplish positive change together. In my view, there are three primary levels of a leader's leverage:

Authority. This is the ability to compel others. Much of the literature I've read on this topic suggests that true leaders don't resort to exerting authority. But my experience indicates otherwise. There are inevitably times when leaders need to rely on their (or someone else's) authority to tell people what they need to do. 

Think of it as similar to guard rails along a roadway. You certainly don't want drivers bouncing off guard rails to stay on the road, but there are occasionally times when guard rails prevent cars from going off the road. Likewise, there are times when people need to be told what to do to keep them from venturing off the course set for the whole team.

The secret is to use authority sparingly and selectively. If you routinely have to pull rank to get your team to follow, you may get compliance, but you'll never get the level of performance that comes from people following you because they want to. Besides using authority sparingly, you want to balance it with the other two levels of leverage.

Expertise. This is the ability to show others how. At this level, the leader is respected and followed because people are convinced that he or she has the know-how and skills necessary to lead the way. The expertise-based leader, of course, is common in our business. In a profession that places such high value on expertise, a leader's knowledge and experience can be a strong attraction to followers and build instant credibility with them.

But you shouldn't confuse expertise in the technical realm with competency in areas such as business, marketing, human resources, or organizational dynamics—where leadership is most often needed. Many of the most accomplished technical experts I've known over the years did not have the requisite skills or aptitude to be effective leaders. For more thoughts on the "expert leader," check out this earlier post.

Influence. This is the ability to motivate others, the highest form of leverage and where leadership is best demonstrated. Influence involves many things—communication, caring, personal example, etc. One's persuasive skills are also an important competency in influencing others. Relatively few technically-oriented managers, in my experience, are really effective in applying the leverage of influence. So this obviously needs to be our focal point in developing leadership ability.

Using positive reinforcement is probably the most powerful way to influence the behavior of others. I've written on this topic at some length in this space, so I encourage you to use the search bar for guidance on using positive reinforcement. This post offers a brief overview to get you started.

The Character of a Leader

Any discussion of the leader's leverage—and influence as the highest level of leverage—would be incomplete without touching on the power of one's personal example. As a leader, you are defined as much by who you are as by what you do. Your character can be a compelling source of influence. There are three character traits, in particular, that I've seen consistently in the best leaders I have known: 

Personal credibility. A leader must be worthy of others' trust and respect. This characteristic is largely defined by how much you care for others, specifically those you are trying to lead. Are you trustworthy? Are you a good listener? Do you encourage and praise others? People are more inclined to follow a leader with high personal credibility, even if he or she is deficient in some leadership skills. To assess your own personal credibility, use the questions in this previous post.

Perceptional discipline. Strong leaders usually display a rare ability to see things accurately. This involves being able to make honest assessments of (1) the situation, (2) others, and, (3) most importantly, yourself. Bias and self-interest can cloud your ability to make objective judgments about your company, employees, clients, markets, and important trends affecting your business. 

Effective leaders have the ability to "view things from the balcony"—a description used by former NBA great Magic Johnson to describe his remarkable court sense. Getting on the balcony requires mentally removing oneself from the situation (especially emotionally) to see the big picture in a detached, objective manner.

This can be particularly challenging in assessing your own personal credibility and leadership abilities. Understanding your strengths and shortcomings enables you to craft an approach to leadership that fits who you are. Your assessment should include recognizing how others see you, for perception is reality when it comes to the impact you have on others. For this insight, of course, you need to solicit feedback from others.

Persevering focus. As a leader, you must be able to concentrate your attention and energy on important matters, over the long haul, until the job is done. Unfortunately, the norm in our business is managers who are constantly "fighting fires"—allowing a constant stream of unanticipated, urgent matters dictate how they spend their time and devote their attention.

Obviously, you have to be responsive. But you want to avoid just being reactive. Strong leaders by contrast are proactive, planning ahead and following through on those plans—and getting others involved in the implementation. In other words, effective leaders are not just visionary; they get things done.

Learning how to apply the leader's leverage to engage others enables you not only to overcome organizational inertia, but to multiply your impact on the firm, accomplishing far more than you could on your own. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I was able to find good advice from your blog articles.

Feel free to surf to my weblog; long orange one shoulder ball dress