Do You Want to Lead People?

By Chris Chittenden

"You cannot manage men into battle. You manage things; you lead people."

… Grace Murray Hopper (1906 - 1992) US military leader and mathematician

More often than not, the topic of each month's newsletter surfaces in a recent conversation with someone. This month is no exception. The topic arose in a conversation with a colleague where we were discussing our work and ended up on the theme of why do organisations continue to appoint people to leadership roles, who are not well suited to leading people. We even light-heartedly discussed making offers to businesses to use our skills in leadership development to help them select better leaders!

This conversation got me thinking again about how organisations could better approach the appointment of people to leadership roles.

You may recall from some of my previous articles that we distinguish between managing and leading in a simple way. Managers put outcomes before people and leaders focus on how people will achieve outcomes. Although this may sound like a simplistic distinction, the implications it brings can be profound. Based on the idea that human beings live in a continuous stream of experience, we deal with one thing before the other and the way in which we do this will tell us what is more important to us. In our work we find that most of the breakdowns in the workplace are found in our relationships with others. This is exacerbated when we give more priority to outcomes over the people who are expected to achieve these outcomes. Now it is certainly possible to think of outcomes first and then seek to find a balance with the people aspect of the situation. There are certainly many people who can do this. Unfortunately many cannot and they ignore or wish they could ignore the people involved. The key to effective leadership lies in a balance between people and outcome.

One of the questions, I have asked many people in leadership roles over time is "tell me in just a few words, what it is that you do in this role?" The answers I have received are illuminating and point to what a person sees is their primary function in that role. Remarkable as it may seem, it is rare for someone to say that "I lead people". Mostly the answers have been related to aspects of what they do such as "I am a problem solver" or "I improve productivity" rather than their overall charge. This approach of asking people to distill down to a few words just what they think they do can provide some great insights.

For example, the "problem solver" will tend to focus their energy on looking for and solving problems. This leads to a reactive approach to their way of leading. After all, problems usually result from something unexpected. The "productivity improver" will tend to focus looking for improvements. Now I am not saying that these things should not be part of what leaders do. They have their place. However, if someone sees a narrow aspect as their primary focus then this will undoubtedly create a blindness in which other issues will arise. They tend to become task managers, rather than people leaders.

By the time, I get to work with people in leadership roles, their belief about their leadership style is well entrenched and can take some time to shift to a more people oriented approach. Ironically enough, I have found when coaching people who are temporarily filling a leadership role that they can be much clearer in what they can do in that role, particularly if it is outside their main area of expertise. In these situations, people must focus on what they can do and it often becomes more of a facilitating, rather than a directing, role. With this clarity, these people often far exceed the expectations of themselves and others in these temporary roles.

So one way of getting better people leaders into leadership roles is to ask them the two simple questions:

  1. "Tell me in just a few words, what it is that you would do in this role?" and
  2. "Why do you want to lead people?"

I am sure you will get some interesting answers that will give you some insights into the sort of leader you may be appointing.

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© 2014 Chris Chittenden