Lessons on Leadership

I’ve written about my experience of management before and enjoy sharing my thoughts and hearing from others on the topic. Today I want to talk about leadership, as for me, there is a difference between management and leadership. I always knew there were differences but it was only in a recent book that I saw it put in a very succinct and in what I feel, very accurate way. The book is called The Manager and talks through various management and leadership styles from some of the world’s most successful football managers. Here is a quote that illustrates the difference between a manager and a leader [emphasis mine]:

“When the team is not in a crisis, the question then becomes: is this something we’ve faced before – something to which there is a clear answer? If the answer is yes, then it will respond to well-tried methods. It is a ‘tame’ problem. This is ‘management’. The manager is about rolling-out things that have been done before, where the degree of certainty is high. The problem may feel like a puzzle – may even be quite complicated – but there is a solution, and the manager engages in a familiar process to solve it. If it is not something we have faced before, and there might well not even be a clear answer, then we’re into ‘leadership‘.”

To put it another way, managers will operate within the realm of what they know. Leaders will embrace that which they do not.

That isn’t to say that the roles are mutually exclusive. A manager can be a strong leader and a leader can be a strong manager. However, we must appreciate the differences and be aware of them, particularly when it comes to improving our own skills as either of them.

Over the last 18 months or so, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my own skills in these areas, particularly as I consider my future and where I want to push myself in my career. Do I want to lead a company? Do I want to be a manager? Do I want to be a CEO? Do I want to run my own company? Am I happy to be the “do-er” rather than the leader? I can imagine that these are questions that others ask themselves too, hence wanting to share my thoughts here.

Taking a step back, I’ve never really considered myself a leader. I’ve never been the loudest person in the room, never tend to draw attention to myself and typically, didn’t volunteer myself forward for leadership tasks. It’s funny how these are things that I considered to be the traits of a leader, someone who would actively step up and almost say “I am leading you” or effectively say this through their actions. My views have certainly changed though, particularly as I’ve worked with more people, read about styles of leadership and some things work better than others. After reading The Manager, I found myself bringing most of my previous thoughts together. Most of the book wasn’t new to me, but I found myself highlighting more than I had in most other books because it put things very simply. I want to take the opportunity to share a few highlights and clarify some of my own thinking on the topic.

Before getting into the details of what skills a great leader needs, it’s worth pointing out that these skills don’t just apply to leaders. These skills are valuable whether you consider yourself a leader or not and the general principles will apply to most of us and the companies we work for.

Everyone needs a vision

“Sharing a long-term vision is a sure-fire way to secure a long-term relationship – and, with it, stability for your organisation or team.”

It is too easy to live day-to-day, not really knowing if the work that we’re doing is actually helping the company do what it wants to do. When the leaders of a company do not communicate their vision (or worse, don’t have one) then how are the employees meant to know what they are working towards? One of the key drivers in happiness for most employees is having meaning in their work and feeling like their work is directly contributing to the success of the company.

If you do not have a well communicated vision, then employees won’t know if they are actually contributing to the long-term success of the company. Instead, short-term values will take over which may end up with them focusing on the wrong thing. For example, a sales executive may become focused on hitting targets for this quarter whereas in reality, that may mean filling capacity with clients that won’t last longer than 6 months – this may not be in line with the long-term vision of the company at all.

Bringing this back to leadership. I think that it is vital that a leader has the ability to set the vision for a company and from here, drive the mission and strategy forward. When you’re growing a company, you hardly ever know what is going to happen next and there are various things that could be totally new to you such as:

  • Where is the market heading?
  • What opportunities are there out there which we haven’t seen yet?
  • What is the company going to look like in five years on it’s current path?
  • Global trends – what is happening in other countries that could affect us long-term?

That isn’t even mentioning the unknown-unknowns. There are things that are so far out that they are not on the radar yet. You can’t plan for what you don’t know. When the recession hit in 2009, very few companies (if any?) would have factored this into their five year strategy in 2006. If a company is relatively new and not experienced a recession before, there is no precedent for how to handle it.

This is where leadership matters. A leader can not only have some foresight – of course they still can’t foresee everything – but they also have confidence in being right, even in unknown situations.

Leaders help their teams realise the vision

“Having set a vision, a leader needs to ensure his people have a fighting chance of fulfilling it. He needs to address his team’s behaviours since right behaviours will assist on the journey where poor ones won’t.”

It isn’t enough for the leader to communicate their vision and then hand it over to the company. Yes, front-line of the company will ultimately be the ones with the most power to make the vision a reality, but there needs to be some direction from the leader too. This is a collaborative effort though and it certainly isn’t healthy for a leader to outline a list of actions for their teams.

The leader needs to spend time with their direct reports (usually a management or executive team) to explain how their respective teams can help realise the vision and cascade information down to their teams. Together, they come up with team objectives that align very well with the vision. In the same way it isn’t healthy for a leader to dictate to their team on what they need to do, it is also not healthy for them to use a hands-off approach and say “go figure it out”.

OKRs and vision

Above is a slide from a recent all-hands presentation that I gave at Distilled on the topic of the team I manage and how I’d aligned our objectives with the vision and strategy of the whole company. This shows how I feel a vision and strategy should cascade down the company and end up driving the personal objectives of the team. When I worked at Distilled, we used the OKRs (objectives and key-results) framework to drive personal objectives. As a team manager, it’s my job to support my team in hitting their OKRs and checking in regularly on them. We use a similar system now at Aira for our team.

Leaders aren’t afraid to ask for help

“high-performing leaders recognise the gravity of their task, and happily admit their need for support. In that vulnerability lies a strength that will bring them success.”

Conventional wisdom is that a leader needs to be a fountain of knowledge, always knowing the answers and as a result, they inspire confidence in others. There is little doubt that these things are valuable, but in reality, no one knows all the answers all of the time. I think that a leader (or anyone for that matter) should be able to admit when they don’t know the answer to something or need support. This is, for me anyway, a much bigger display of confidence than someone who attempts to blag their way through a situation and not get help when they need it.

Having said that, I do feel that a great leader has the skills to walk into any situation and be confidence in their own ability. These are softer skills and are quite hard to teach without getting hands-on experience. There is no doubt that being able to think on your feet is a great skill for anyone, let alone a leader.

This leads nicely onto the next point.

Great leaders forget about ego

“Every business, every organisation has stakeholders whose voices are important and influential. But one of the traps of leadership is to believe you are the centre of the universe.”

Quite naturally, leaders will attract attention. More often than not, leaders will gravitate towards more senior positions within a company and attract attention was a result of this too. Attracting attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, it’s how you act as a result that really matters.

Before going too far here, let’s be clear on one thing. Everyone has an ego in some form or another and generally it doesn’t mean there is a problem.

It can become a problem though when someone believes they are bigger than their team or worse, their company. The fact is that one person isn’t bigger than the company and believing they are can lead to bigger problems from the team.

“One of the things you must remember as a leader is your people are more important than you.”

I was speaking recently to the Operations Manager at a very successful London based restaurant company and he pointed to the staff at the restaurant and said they are the important ones. The rest of us are just here to make sure they can do their job. I couldn’t agree more with this.

Going back to The Manager, here is an extract from the book which gives some exact examples of how various successful managers have put ego to one side when it’s come to the greater good of the team:

“Once again, humility is a powerful trait in a leader. There is something inspiring about the way in which the 62-year-old Warnock was prepared to be changed by the young genius of Taarabt, about Mancini’s willingness to apologise when he gets it wrong and about Mourinho’s recognition of his colleagues’ worth that would never, ever have him travel a class above his players.”

Observation is a key soft skill

“Empathetic leaders don’t just catch what is said – they listen for what is not said, and actively search for underlying meaning, scanning conversations, facial expressions and body language for clues.”

I think that observation and empathy are overlooked skills, not just for leaders but also for managers. The stereotypical leader is someone who is always busy, always on the move, jumping in and out of meetings and generally not stepping back to observe and take notice of the details. Therefore, observation isn’t typically thought of as a key skill for leaders, certainly not in the people management sense. They are expected to observe bigger picture things and trends within the company, but not so much when it comes to the team themselves.

However I think that being observant of the team and empathetic towards what you see is very important. Otherwise, a leader will never understand what makes their team tick. If they don’t understand what makes their team tick then they will not be in the best position to get them on board and in line with their vision for the company. In other words, it will be far harder to get things done.

Without spending time with the team, a leader can quickly lose touch with reality. The reality of day-to-day life on the front-line of the business needs to be understood by leaders within the company otherwise, a wedge can be driven between the front-line and the leaders, creating a culture of “us vs. them”. A great leader will spend time with their team and observe their behaviour, ask questions, understand their problems, be open to ideas and pick up on the subtleties of the conversation.

“What Ancelotti or Ian Green display is empathy. A much misunderstood idea, empathy is cast aside by too many leaders as ‘the soft side’ when, in fact, it is incredibly hard for most of us to practise. Empathy has two components. The first idea is that we put ourselves in the shoes of another person, to better understand their mindset and thus their worldview. Once we understand this, we can work much more productively with them. The second idea is that we show our awareness of their situation by some clear acknowledgement. Again there is a productivity bonus: he is happier to work with me because he feels I understand him.”

The power of one-on-ones

“In stepping up to lead your peers, the art of one-on-one – specifically how you deliver the message – is critical.”

I’m a huge fan of one-on-ones and have weekly catchups with each of my team leads at Distilled, alongside this I make sure that they are checking in regularly with their team members. Larger team meetings have their purposes but I much prefer one-on-ones when it comes to my direct reports. It helps to make sure that problems are addressed as quickly and that you can make sure things are moving along at a good pace. It also means that more formal line manager-type meetings are less likely to throw up surprises because you’ll have been communicating regularly.

There is a counter point here though and not everyone believes in the value of one-on-one meetings. Here is an extract from The Everything Store which is the story of Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com. The quote is in reference to Jeff Bezos, his time management and leadership style:

“he decreed that he would no longer have one-on-one meetings with his subordinates. These meetings tended to be filled with trivial updates and political distractions, rather than problem solving and brain-storming. Even today, Bezos rarely meets alone with an individual colleague.”

When you read more about Bezos’ style, it isn’t that surprising as he is hardly someone who worries about confrontation. I guess he doesn’t feel like he needs to have a one-on-one in order to give someone potentially damaging feedback! Another quote from the story of Bezos showed that he didn’t care much for getting close to his colleagues:

“One of his gifts, his colleagues said, was being able to drive and motivate his employees without getting overly attached to them personally.”

These two principles are vastly different to my own approach, but that’s what I love about this stuff. Everyone is different and who am I to question the logic of someone who has built a multiple billion dollar company?!

“There are four challenges to great one-on-one leadership: capturing the loyalty of your people, understanding their humanity, the extent to which the environment you’re in is one of high pressure and high visibility and the changing nature of the world around. In response to these challenges, football’s leaders must deliver a mix of empathy and steel.”

Leaders aren’t necessarily the most senior people

At this point, it could be quite easy to assume that only people in senior positions are capable of being leaders. I don’t think that is the case though. I don’t think that leadership grows out of seniority, if anything, seniority grows out of leadership. This doesn’t mean that you have to be a leader in order to succeed at a company though, quite the contrary, a successful company will have a balance of leaders, managers and specialists who will be on the front line.

A leader can be anyone though, it can be someone on their first day at a new job who helps their team through a difficult project by bringing a fresh perspective. Or it can be the office manager who spots that there is tension in the team and takes them out of the office for lunch on a sunny day.

In conclusion, there are key differences between managers and leaders, however the skillsets aren’t mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the skills above can help you in a range of ways, not just in the realm of leadership or management. At the same time though, if you do think of yourself as a good manager or a good leader, take a critical look at your own skills and see how many of the above you feel you have. If you see gaps, you know what to do 🙂

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