Leadership Isn’t a Specialty Area

Years ago I handled labor relations in a meat processing facility where every employee had a singular function. Someone ran the slicer, someone else the grinder, etc. Everyone knew and accepted the very narrow parameters imposed on their job duties.

An exchange with a client this morning prompted my walk down meat packing memory lane.

“Coaching problem employees isn’t my job.”

“Whose job is it?”

“That’s what HR does, not me.”

While there’s a whole host of rich topics embedded here, what jumped out first for me was how effortlessly this fellow had narrowed his area of leadership responsibility. The employees making the bacon had little choice in the scope of their duties given the machine they were assigned to run. This individual had constructed his own job boundaries, opting to make them narrowly focused on what he did best – metrics, results and schedules. He forgot about the people who make the results and numbers possible.

It’s heart-warming to read the results of IBM’s 2012 Global CEO study in which “CEOs regard interpersonal skills of collaboration (75 percent), communication (67 percent), creativity (61 percent) and flexibility (61 percent) as key drivers of employee success to operate in a more complex, interconnected environment.” Leadership isn’t a specialty area for one-way directives, tasks and numbers. (I’ll send out the memo to Wall Street and big business later this afternoon.) Leadership is a labor of love that encompasses both task completion and relationship fostering. It’s not an either/or proposition.

Are you a leader like my client who’s most comfortable focusing on results and aren’t sure how to bring more flexibility into your leadership interactions? If so, research and science provide guidance in learning to integrate the “paradoxes, tensions, and trade-offs inherent in the managerial job.”[1]

1) Reframe how you think about your role. Many leaders tend to over-rely on a strength (say, driving for accomplishments) and under-use its opposite[2] (collaborating and creating cohesion). That’s when all sorts of problems arise because the over-used strength has now become a weakness. Here’s where you apply the Goldilocks principle of getting it just right – like skillfully pressing for results while treating people like people instead of machines.

2) Be kind and hold people accountable. A good leader expects his people to achieve their objectives; and when they fall short, the performance gap is discussed considerately so their self-esteem and self-worth remain intact. We all fall short from time to time and rarely benefit from being labeled an idiot or worse by an uncaring boss. It’s the leader who coaches us to better performance and who does so with compassion that we’ll follow off the cliff.

3) Understand it’s not your dad’s management anymore. Command and control may create short-term compliance at the expense of long-term resentment and disengagement. Awareness and agility are needed to deal with a world that’s constantly changing, perpetually connected and well-informed. An effective leader wants a broad repertoire of knowledge, skills, abilities and behaviors in her toolkit.

4) It’s all about context. At some point in coaching programs and development workshops, someone typically points out that I’m advocating that they be inconsistent and manipulative. Puh-lease. I’ll concede that it does take more time, effort and awareness to be directive and flexible, decisive and sensitive. Recognizing that one-size-leadership doesn’t fit all circumstances isn’t being capricious, it’s being smart.

A character-based leader willingly incorporates the dualities of leading in a complex world – monitor and mentor, producer and facilitator, doing good and doing well. What say you?

Duality image from Unwrapping Minds


[1] Lindberg, Jennifer T. and Kaiser, Robert B. “Assessing the Behavioral Flexibility of Managers:  A Comparison of Methods.” April 2004.

[2] Ibid.

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