By Barbara Poole
It used to be that when you brought up the issue of leadership, what you were really talking about was who was the boss, the guy in charge, the head honcho. For many years, the terms "leader" and "manager" were used interchangeably, and the assumption was that those in managerial or leadership roles wielded power on the basis of their positions on the organizational chart. Clout was associated with how high on the sheet of paper your "box" appeared.
The more contemporary view of leadership now suggests that anyone in a business, organization, team, family, or any other group, can serve as a leader regardless of how official that designation might be. Leadership has come to be based more on personal power than on position power. And yet, most organizations still adhere to designating certain people as "official" leaders, if for no other reason than to assign accountability for performance and results. So if designated leaders can no longer rely on their formal positions to give them power and influence, what does it take to be effective as a leader, both now and into the future?
Whereas the old job of leadership was to tell people what to do, the new role of leadership is to mobilize people and cultivate their capacity to figure out what they need to do. This represents a fundamental shift in thinking from the old orientation which presumed that the leader had all the answers, sort of a "Father Knows Best meets the business world" framework. The new leader, on the other hand, readily acknowledges that the collective wisdom of the team is the key to success, and that many heads are better than one.
The most critical function that the new leader fulfills is establishing vision. Fluffy words aside, the real purpose of vision is to provide answers to the questions, "Where are we headed?" and "What are we trying to create?" Vision is essential to giving people a context for the work that they do, and a way of understanding how their contributions fit into the big picture. Think of it this way: Suppose I gave you all 300 pieces to a jigsaw puzzle, but threw away the box top with the picture on it. Would you be able to assemble the puzzle? Maybe. But chances are, it would take a very long time, and you would likely lose interest before you finished. The picture on the box top is analogous to vision. It provides a way to make sense of the pieces. Time and time again, when I ask groups of employees what they most need from their leaders, they say, "Just tell us where we're headed."
If vision defines where an organization is headed, then strategy is about how it will get there. This is where collaboration and the art of participative leadership come into play. It's also where the rubber meets the road in terms of the new leader being able to suspend his own ego and acknowledge that his viewpoint is not the only valid one. Having clearly spelled out the vision for the organization, the leader's job now becomes one of creating space and favorable conditions for creativity, innovation, and problem solving to take hold and flourish. How does this happen? It often starts with the leader asking questions lots of them. Questions like, "What do you think matters most to our customers?", "Where do you think we should start?", and "How can I best support you and your work on this project?" Asking the questions is the easy part. The real skill comes into play as the leader listens, with an open mind, suspended judgment, and a genuine curiosity about the ideas that are shared.
Does all of this imply that the new leader must be extroverted and charismatic to get the job done? Not at all. Leadership specialists Jim Kouzes' and Barry Posner's research suggests that the leader who garners the greatest following is the one who is honest, visionary, competent, respectful, and trustworthy. These traits are often packaged in people whose styles are characterized by quiet, humble, and gentle strength. Add to this mix two important traits that will become increasingly important for leaders in the future: a strong stomach for conflict, and a high tolerance for uncertainty. Fostering teamwork and participative work environments does not imply an absence of conflict. Indeed, as different ideas and orientations are brought to the table, conflict is an inevitable byproduct. The strong leader helps people acknowledge conflict and facilitates a healthy resolution that allows them to grow in the process.
Perhaps the most important trait of the new leader is a commitment to engage in regular self-renewal; a willingness to take an honest and hard look inside and acknowledge needs for personal change and growth. Stephen Covey calls this "sharpening the saw." It's crucial to both a well-run organization and a good life.
The job of the new leader can best be summed up in the words of Max DePree, who said, "The first task of a leader is to define reality. The last task is to say 'thank you.' And in between, he's a servant."