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Is that really leadership?

20 November 2013

There’s a difference between leadership and management. Managers in my experience set about to plan task delivery in order to meet business outcomes. Leaders set the direction, ask the hard questions, break the boundaries and are relied upon to think laterally even if it could be unpopular. Seems simple to define and yet leadership is becoming so hard. Leaders are reporting to an endless hierarchy of expectation that everyday I hear from leaders who feel they have no choice but to silence their own opinions for which they were hired.


Many executives are finding leadership today is increasingly exchange driven and frustrating from the point of view that their ability to shake the status quo is becoming increasingly risky.  Most leaders have peripheral vision and yet the expectations and conformity under which they are increasingly working is driven by rules and process much of which is undocumented and shifts unpredictably. When a person with peripheral vision is asked to be increasingly foveal their creativity to break boundaries that take organisations to the next level shuts down. Confusion sets in. Stress mounts. The long drive home becomes a worry fest.


In 2006 the Centre for Creative Leadership undertook a survey of 160 executives and found that 88% reported that work was the primary source of their stress. In April 2013 Workplace Australia released a study that claims workplace stress is costing Australian business $10.11 billion per annum. The Financial Review reported in September 2013 that workplace stress is at epidemic proportions, with journalist Fiona Smith opening her article with the statement, “five years of rolling redundancy and enterprise-change programs has taken a toll on many employees and increasing numbers are believed struggling with anxiety and depression.”


There needs to be a step by step approach to the courage that’s needed right now to lead and be effective without negative consequences. While executives squirm in boardrooms feeling powerless to actually say what they really need to say, there is a time where lines need to be drawn. It’s that intuitive voice that kicks in and needs to be heard. Preface to what needs to be said by warning the audience that your commentary, feedback, ideas and stance may not land well. Find moments of courage without being defensive or accusational and land something that everyone wants to offer but may not have the courage to do. Be solution focussed and bring all discussions back to the outcome, ask for the relevance and step up the purpose by asking about intentions. Be the person that keeps discussions on target, and steps the foveal fear up to peripheral power.


What if it does not land well? The elephant clearly does not want to be put back into most rooms. There’s only so long that management can deny you the entrepreneurial leadership you were apparently hired for. The key is to be solution focussed, intentions aligned with the organisational values and goals. Expansive and non-judgemental in delivery. Most of all avoid being defensive and accusational. This is not personal, it’s leadership. It’s going to take courage.
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