Skip to content

Lead is a Verb

August 30, 2012

I spend a lot of my time thinking about words and language – it makes a change from the military, when I spent a lot of time thinking about the enemy and the ground! It’s often useful to look at words, not so much in terms of what they mean, but how they’re used, to gain further insights into them. In this instance, I want to look at Leaders, Leadership and Leading.

As the title rather gives away, I think of leading as a verb; leading is a thing you do. This is important, because it’s surprising how often people take it from the other direction. If we take ‘Leader’ as a noun, then people assume that leaders must be leading, they lead because they are leaders. I can’t disagree with this idea strongly enough. If someone is leading, then they are a leader; just because you’re in a leadership position, that doesn’t mean you are actually leading. And just because you’re not in a leadership position doesn’t mean you can’t, shouldn’t or are not capable of, leading. The reason this is important is that a lot of people who consider themselves, or who are considered to be, in leadership positions, simply attempt to act like a leader (and by act, I mean, like an actor – i.e. in a world of make-believe).

I have had the privilege of seeing Kevin Spacey’s performance of Richard the Third I can say with some confidence he represents a cruel but subtle leader with great skill. How would he fair as a monarchist dictator in the middle ages? I daresay ‘not well’ and Mr Spacey won’t mind me making that judgement. Michael Douglas looked every inch the vicious, and unscrupulous, trader in Wall Street, but does anyone really think he could just step into the boardroom and take control? Portraying something, acting in a way to seem like something is a vital artistic skill, and a dubious leadership one. Far too often people will behave in the way they think is correct for their position. They give directions without compromise and won’t take feedback, for fear of seeming ‘weak’. They enter a situation, make their own quick judgements about what to do, and won’t deviate. They tyrannical “I-am-in-charge” type is by far the worst sort of pseudo-leader you can have above you, closely followed by those entirely unsuited to the role, perhaps appointed due to technical skill, who become too paralysed to act, or too confused or confounded to face a problem, leaving others to try and work out what to do. In both cases, leadership is lacking, because no one is leading thinking and behaving as a leader.

Good leadership is routed in leadership behaviours, including planning (and evaluating) early and late and all the way through a project. Someone who says ‘this way’ and never thinks about it again

Do they follow because of his handsome features and determined stare, or because of the months and years of confidence developed in his ability and judgement?

is a dangerous person to follow. As a very junior officer cadet, I recall we were advised to check our navigation early and often, and to stop if we felt it necessary; being late was bad, being lost is worse. Strong leaders will have no trouble stopping to assess a situation, and take feedback from those around them. Weak leaders don’t listen to anyone, and either do anything, as long as the action originated in their own mind, or else do nothing at all. When people see films of military or business leaders giving strong direction, sterling speeches and the like, they have no conception of what went into their thought process to reach that point. When we see Tom Hanks lead his men up the bloody Omaha beach in Saving Private Ryan, it never occurs that he has not only lived this moment in his mind many time in the last six months, but that he, and they, have practiced and practiced again and again until it becomes instinct. He knows what to do and where to go because careful and considered planning has gone in, supported by careful practice. Emulating that punchy, in the moment aspect of leadership, without understanding the earlier part, will only lead you to trouble.


The Value and Application of Anticipation

August 28, 2012

Deliberate planning for a task or event is clearly a vital leadership skill, but planning occurs at all times in all circumstances, and should be engaged in by everyone. Sometimes we language can interfere with our understanding of a matter, so when I use planning here I would expect most people to think of a deliberate plan, based on an objective and considering resources, limitations and so on. That’s a type of plan, lets call it a deliberate plan, but planning is vital at all times and in all situations. A form of planning is anticipation, looking ahead and considering the possible and probable occurences and consequences of a set of actions or tasks.

Anticipation is one of the best things you can do for success in any situation, and it is surprising how often it isn’t engaged in. One of the best places for anticipation is in fixed tasks, done over and over again, perhaps with only subtly changing circumstances. Anyone from an electrical repairman to a financial accountant can benefit from this. In simple tasks we often dismiss acts of anticipation as being simply ‘common sense’ where it is just assumed you’ld know that if you do this, then that will happen. When I want to bake a cake, it doesn’t help if I get the ingredients together, mix them up, then turn on the oven and wait for it to heat up. Simple anticipation says that the oven will need to be hot, and that it will take a little while to get there, so I turn that on first; while it’s heating up, I can prepare the mixture. When I take the dog for a walk, I know that she’ll get excited if she see’s another dog, so I anticipate them, I keep an eye out ahead for other dogs and if I see them, I take a firmer control of my dogs lead. I might avoid them, or head for them, but I saw them before she did, I anticipated the other dog, and so I retained control of the situation. If I was just blithely walking the dog, and dealing with any incident as it arose – walking into other dogs, and then trying to control her as she gets excited, say – then I’m really not thinking about what I’m doing. Without that little bit of planning and forethought, I’ve allowed a situation (albeit only a small one) to develop, which could have been avoided or controlled.

Some people do this automatically, and that’s great for them, but for most of us it’s a matter of consideration, taking the time to stop and think through the path ahead, not just the immediate elements or tasks, but the ones that will, or might, follow it. Having an idea of what may come up, and how to handle it, will position you well to handle it. Dealing with it as it comes can lead to difficulties, or even failure. You may get overwhelmed, or miss timings. You just might end up having to spend twice as long on the task again.

Knowing what will, can or might happen, and thinking through how to cope with them ahead of time will always make your life easier, and put you in a better position. Sometimes it’s a matter of experience, sometimes intuition. Mostly, it’s a matter of thought. Time will always bring us new challenges, and whether we’re leading a company, or just trying to get our own thing done, looking ahead at what may be coming is always time well spent.

On the Passage of Information

August 21, 2012

One of my favourite things on television at the moment is Hell’s Kitchen. Partly, it’s because there’s little else worth watching until September comes around again, and partly it’s because, as an Englishman, I really enjoy seeing Gordon Ramsey in an US setting – I rarely, if ever see Americans capable of that kind of tough attitude, without any excess posturing or gloss; he calls it exactly as he see’s it, in a refreshingly British style. But mostly, it’s because I really enjoy watching kitchens working.

When I was young, I used to make my money dishwashing in various restaurants. Not a particularly great job, it’s poor pay for hard work and little benefit, but there’s a certain something about working in a busy kitchen environment. It’s an unusal mix of tough, risky working conditions, to produce delicate, high quality work in a short time. Make no mistake, kitchens can be dangerous; knives, fire, haste, slippery surfaces, constant movement and the overbearing pressure contribute to make kitchen work dangerous, for those not paying attention. In only a year of so of working through them, I’ve seen broken bones and cuts, slips, bruises, scalds and dangerous collisions on numerous occasions. It’s why professional chefs are often brusque tough people. It’s no surprise to me that some top chefs used to be soldiers – such as Thierry Marx – the businesses are surprisingly comparable. Apart from the macho nature of the work, and the precision and skill that must be applied in exacting circumstances, the nature of the team work involved is very similar too. One great example of this is the communication.

Whilst watching chefs working together, you can’t help but notice the shouting. As ‘orders’ (another little synergy…) come int, the head chef calls them out, and then expects at the very least an acknowledgement, ideally a quick recap back so he knows they’ve been heard and understood. Any military commander, at any level would expect exactly the same. When you pass down directions, you need to know they’ve been received. An acknowledgement of directions given is the least thing a person should provide to a superior, or anyone passing a message or direction. Even better is to take a second, consider what you’ve been given and ask any questions right then. The sooner any possible ambiguities or conflicts are identified and resolved, the less trouble they’ll cause. If the Chef calls out “Three steaks!” and his team just call back “Three steaks ,chef!” and get cooking, they may suddenly come unstuck five minutes later, when they realise they aren’t sure if they should be rare, medium or well done. Whilst we might say it is the head chefs responsibility to state it early, it shows a lack of thought from his commis chef if they don’t ask that on the spot. If a commander says, “we’re going left on to the objective” and his soldiers just say “yes sir!” and get moving, the operation becomes a lot more difficult when they come around left, and find at least three possible routes. Better to seek clarity when you can; the lesson here? Think like the person above you. They might be busy, have ten different things on the go, so help them out and do some of their thinking for them. If you get a simple direction, lacking detail, ask for it. It should almost certainly come straight down.

Chefs and soldiers also keep talking to each other constantly so that each individual can maintain a sense of the big picture, even while they focus closely on their tiny part of it. You see it on Hell’s Kitchen constantly – “three minutes!”, “Walking!”, “Coming behind”, “Who needs help?” – they use their voices to keep a constant situational awareness. If one person is three minutes from completing their part of the meal, and it will take you two and a half to ready your bit, you need to know so that an intricate, delicate meal can be completed with correct timing. Similarly, if a soldier called in an air-strike on a target, it is vital that they call out the time, so that those nearby can move to a safe distance. If a chef is moving around the kitchen, they provide a warning, so that no one falls over them. Soldiers call out all movement so that they don’t get fired on by accident, and so that others can provide a warning if there’s something they should know – enemy presence, friendly forces moving/firing and so on. Because an individuals eyes are fixed on their own task, you need to use the ears to engage them when they can’t see. This sort of communication becomes second nature to those that work in these environments. undoubtedly, the same will be true of places like building sites, fishing boats, warehouses, emergency service crews at accident sites and so on. Again, places you often find former soldiers.

Informing is one of the functions of leadership, and it is in the quality of a leader, regardless of their position, to keep a stream of information coming. Even if you aren’t in charge, you should still be feeding in information about what you are doing, both to those around you and those above and below. One of the qualities of both the kitchen and battlefield as I’ve described them is that they involve significant time pressure, hence the shouting and constant talking. You may think, ‘sure, in those environments you need to be communicating constantly’ but it’s just as true in a slower paced environment, perhaps with less volume though. If you are working on a complex project over several weeks, those time pressures are still there, they just don’t feel pressing until you run into them. But just because they are a way off doesn’t change the nature of the work. You should always be thinking to keep people informed of your situation, even if it’s to report no change – often vital information, particularly if people are expecting a change, or movement. If someone sends you a request by email for some work in a few weeks, acknowledge it. Come back with a few questions. Not only does it show you are engaged, it is actually being engaged. If you have a week to go on a difficult project, and you think it will be tight, let someone know, because a week to think about contingencies is a lot better than three hours. If you feel overwhelmed, it is far better to let people know that you need help, even if they might think you a little weak or incapable, than to keep quiet and try and do it, only to fail . I guarantee, that failure will be ten times worse than to be merely thought weak. Besides which, most times, they won’t think poorly of you, they’ll appreciate the communication. Perhaps its something simple you just don’t know about. Perhaps the leader has extra resources they can put your way. You won’t know until you say something, and you can’t rely on others to be observing you all the time.

Communication is vital to good teamwork. The best leaders are good team players, and this is one reason, but good team players are also capable leaders. As a leader, make sure you are always encouraging your team to talk and communicate their actions and situational information, and as a member of a team make sure you’re thinking like the person above you, and giving them the things you’d want if you were in their position.

(ps – Justin is winning Hell’s Kitchen; aside from his excellent chefing skills, his leadership is just a cut above…)

The Informed Age

April 5, 2012

This is perhaps one of, if not the, most important things any leader can do. Keeping those around them, those following, informed as to what is going on is to my mind the essence of what leadership needs to be about. It’s why we talk of ‘leader’ship – the leader, the person out in front with a good view of what’s coming. Even if you’re not physically in the front (generally, you shouldn’t be) you should be thinking about what comes next, and keeping everyone else focussed on what comes next as well. How do you do that? By keeping them informed.

The Value of Information

When people are well informed, of your intentions, of the results of those working around them (It’s likely they either don’t or can’t see for themselves) and of the challenges coming up, they will be better prepared to feedback to you information from their own corner of the world that might have an impact. A restaurant would not last long if the kitchen wasn’t properly appraised of the bookings – If the place is unusually booked out on a Tuesday, and no one tells the kitchen, whose fault will it be when the steaks run out? It’s not always the obvious stuff either. If you were a machine parts supplier, and you ran a huge sales drive, got all your sales people out to everyone they knew to really make a big push for that month, would you make it a point to involve the warehouse? And when those salesmen sweat it out and double sales that month, what happens if you never let the purchasers know? Not enough machine parts, unfulfilled orders, lost clients, wasted efforts. Motivating people to make sales is a product of good leadership. Letting people know what’s happening is good leadership

Information is often hoarded by some people, and I can rarely see the point. If you know something of importance or value, it should be distributed as soon as possible. If you know something of interest, it should be routinely distributed on a set cycle – an end of day catch up email to all involved, for example. Daily meetings of an hour-and-a-half may not be appropriate, but a five minute address every day to keep people on track can work wonders over the long term. It has the added benefit of making you think about your position as well; if you’ve got to deliver a quick summary of the situation every day, you’re going to be far more likely to be on top of that situation as well.

Up, Down, Sideways

Keeping people informed is not just a matter of telling everyone in your space what’s going on with them. You need to pass information effectively in all three key directions. It’s of equal importance that you keep those overseeing you informed, as it is those you are responsible for informed, and possibly more important that you keep those working at the same sort of space as you, if in different areas, informed as well. How you do this will if course depend on your organisation and activity – the Military have well cemented reporting structures and timings for these things. Some businesses send out the occasional email, others get everyone together every morning. Sports teams plan together before a match, communicate constantly on the field (if they’re any good…) and revise the result and any actions afterwards. Good families take the time to discuss their day, often over a meal, be it breakfast or dinner – this is leadership too.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how or when it happens, as long as it is sufficient and appropriate for the needs of those involved. The important thing is to understand that information is like grease in an engine – it keeps everything moving smoothly and should be widely and evenly distributed. Knowing that, you can examine your own situation and make the assessment as to whether it’s working for you.

Leveraging Complaining in your Favour

April 3, 2012

Moan, gripe, grouse, bellyache, remonstrate and grumble; complaining happens to us all, from one direction or the other – typically both. Making an issue of something, complaining about it, is usually seen as a negative thing to do. No one likes complainers, right? The language shows you how it’s seen. All negative terms and metaphors. We don’t like people who complain because there’s an unstated accusation or requirement to do something. If someone complains about bad service, then someone else didn’t do their job very well, and we don’t like to be that person. Grumblers are often seen, or portrayed, as not ‘pulling their weight’. Complaining should not be seen as such a negative though, it’s really quite a valuable mechanism in leadership, if it’s handled properly.

Complaints as Feedback

The first thing to be said for complaining is that you won’t be in much doubt as to what the complainer thinks of something. If people are complaining that there’s too much work on, then you’ll know that they think they are doing too much (Whether they actually are is an entirely different matter) so you’ll know why they look down and seem harried or disinterested. So you can act to address it, whether it be by addressing your people with a pep-talk, a rationalisation/explanation or a stern kick-in-the-pants, or else by addressing the problem – finding ways of reducing the workload, hiring someone else, re-organising the work to do, and so on. Had no one actually complained, then how would you have known that’s how they felt? And if they do complain, and you then take a direct action as a response to that complaint then – even if you go with ‘kick-in-the-pants’ – they will see that you are paying attention and that they can reach you.

Complaints as Venting

Sometimes, complaining is just a natural way of expressing frustration. Most people aren’t so stupid as to not understand the nature of a situation. If the work needs doing, and it’s hard, they can see that; but they’ll still feel hard done by, or put upon. By expressing that feeling, it won’t build into anything else, such as resentment or actual frustration. If your people know they can complain (within reason) without any sudden punitive comeback, it gives them a route to express themselves. And sometimes in amongst the angst and irritation might just be the germ of a good idea.

Outside every silver lining…

To be sure, not all complaining is (or can be made to be) a positive. Sometimes it is exactly what it seems, the whining of the lazy and the entitled causing a disruption. This sort of grumbling an moaning does need to be jumped on, but not too hard, or else it might just lend credence to the naysayers. One good approach is to allow those who see unfairness a full say. Hear them out to the end, and address their complaints as though they were legitimate. Do they feel others do less? That the work is too hard, or dull? A high risk strategy is to give them the view from your shoes for a minute or two; what is it that they want you to do? If they can’t come up with a workable solution then they will look foolish – though if they pull out an incisive method of handling a difficult problem you will have lost a lot of influence, the underlying value of leadership.

Alternatively, establish effective systems of anonymous criticism, with simple but fair rules to keep matters focussed. If you do find laughable or unpleasant comments, put them up on a board, either as an example of childishness, or else with a request for solutions, to see if anyone else can do it. Remember, being the leader does not oblige you to have all the ideas – just to lead them. Ultimately, as a leader you are leading people. Automatically taking a defensive view of criticism or objections means you may well be missing some critical and important information, about the individual, about the team as a unit and about the tasks you’re trying to complete, after all, these are the people with their heads and hands in the details. The first time you blow someone off with a legitimate complaint, is the last time you get to lead that person at all.

A final note; even when a complaint is patently correct, a grumble is totally and entirely legitimate, never be tempted to join in. Commiserate by all means, identify the problem and show action towards it, but don’t ever reflect complaints back down to those you lead. Complaints should always move up – go find the person one-up from you and complain to them (behind closed doors). It might seem to put you close to your people if you can show that you share their troubles and feel as they do, but even as it moves you closer to them as a person, it’ll erode your authority and true influence. As a leader, you have to be an example more than a friend, even if you’d rather it be the other way round.

The Benefits of Planning your Evaluation

March 29, 2012

A key function of any leader is assessment, of their people, the team as a unit and of the task in front of them. Whilst this might seem obvious and straightforward, it is still easily forgotten about, or else done poorly. A classic error is to think that assessment is simply standing back and using judgement, without condition or clear criteria. Good assessment should be planned for, as all other aspects of a task should be planned for, and one of the best ways of doing this is to identify specific objectives with measurable outcomes.

Evaluation is really the counterpart of planning. You make a plan at the beginning of a task, and you evaluate success at the end. Actually, that’s not quite right. Like all leadership functions, you should be planning and evaluating throughout and evaluation and planning work hand in hand. As you progress through a task you should be evaluating and assessing your progress and feeding back the result of those assessments into your plan. The old saw “No plan survives contact with the enemy” is often thrown around after the fact, but it remains true and should be considered throughout. Rigidly sticking to the plan you initially devised despite results or circumstances is a fast track to failure. You should always be prepared to re-plan, rethink your approach – which is not to say you should expect to! Even while you should anticipate having to change course, you should also be resisting it until it becomes necessary.

This is where good objectives and carefull evaluation becomes invaluable. The hardest decision to make is the decision to abandon your current course and take a new approach, not because you will already be invested in your present plan (though you will) and not because it will be hard work to do so (it will) but because it has to be made at the exact right time, for the right reasons. willingly abandoning a plan too soon, or unnecessarily is as bad as clinging desperately to a clearly failing one. It is a matter of careful judgement and insight, but those qualities aren’t mystical or natural gifts. By establishing sound criteria for success or failure – good ‘metrics’ in business speak – you will have a systematized approach to making that call. If you have built into your plan both the space to make evaluation as you proceed and the criteria against which to measure success or failure you will be able to easily and effectively make judgements as you go.

There is another benefit as well. If you have made both these considerations early on (what to assess, how to assess it, when to assess) then you should also have given yourself some idea as to how to handle failure. Effectively planning for assessment should also lead you naturally to planning contingencies in case of a failure, somewhere along the line. If you’ve given consideration to each stage of the process and particularly what success or failure will look like, then you should also have begun to consider how to handle that failure. By making evaluation a part of your planning process, your plan will itself be significantly better.

The Brave and the Fearless

March 27, 2012

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point – C. S. Lewis

Being brave and being fearless are often used as synonyms, when they are in fact very different qualities. To be brave, is to act in the face fo fear – to do something when we are naturally unwilling to do so. To be fearless is to not have that unwillingness in the first place. And whilst that second might seem beneficial, I have strong reservations about anyone who might be considered ‘fearless’.

I am not usually interested in discussions as to the ‘qualities’ a leader should have. These are usually centered around certain conceptual ideas or labels a person might attract. by and large, they either represent obvious qualities people should have (honesty, consideration) or else discussions about them are better focussed on actions – what you do; how you do it. People have virtues, are virtuous, in relation to the virtuous actions they take. The discussion is then better kept on the topic of the actions themselves. Yet I find this one distinction interesting.

As the initial quote ably shows, courage is not an action itself. Being brave is almost a meta-action behind an action. Anyone can walk through a doorway, and actually anyone can walk through a doorway on fire, but not everyone will. To do so seems to require something, a little extra – courage, we might say. Of those who would walk through the flaming portal, we might well consider them brave; most of them are. A few though, might just be fearless. Now think about this, who would you rather follow through that burning door; someone who is afraid of it, or someone who is entirely unafraid of it?

It might seem that the person who is not at all phased by the fire would be the best choice, after all, they won’t hesitate, won’t suddenly have a failure in nerve. This seems sensible at first, but consider; it’s a fire. You should be afraid, at least a little. That’s normal, and reasonable. The person who is afraid of the fire will treat it with respect, will conduct an internal risk analysis before stepping in. They will deliberate over what could be gained by going on, versus what might be lost. The person with no fear, will just go on blithely, as though it were a normal thing, when it really isn’t.

A good leader should be brave, because a good leader should recognise the danger, should feel it, in a situation. Beware following fearless people, they are missing a vital sense.