#369  from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 11          November, 1998

The Modern Leader’s Role
by Alan Weiss, Ph.D.

Dr. Weiss is President of Summit Consulting Group (East Greenwich, RI; phone 401-884-2778; ferrari@idt.net; www.summitconsulting.com) helping companies improve individual and organizational performance.

“Your actions are so loud, I can’t hear what you’re saying,” observed Ralph Waldo Emerson. Every time that a leader sends a message, he or she is providing two mes­sages: One is the content (what the leader wants done) and the other is the process or style (how the leader conveys it). The latter is at least as important as the former, be­cause it provides the cultural context for the recipients.

No matter what the nature of your organization, no one in it believes what they see and hear. They only believe what they see. There is no more powerful shaper of behavior in the organization than the behaviors of those in leadership positions. Above all else, the leader is an exemplar.

I’ve been in countless organizations that post their “values” on every available square foot of wall space. Inevitably, near the top of the list is a statement about re­spect and equitable treatment for employees. Yet in many of these organizations, employees can see colleagues being brutally treated right beneath the laminated plaques. As one supervisor noted, “You can treat people ruthlessly here, as long as you make your numbers.” That cultural reality immediately destroys every plaque, banner and button in the company.

Leaders establish the behavioral realities of the workplace. Above all else, they establish and embody the real values of the organization and, by extension, its rela­tionships with customers, suppliers and partners. In over two decades of consulting, I’ve never observed an organization—public or private—that had unhappy employees and happy customers. If leaders provide the message that the customer is a nec­essary evil and general bother, employees will usually reflect that in minimum ser­vice, lack of courtesy and zero initiative. If leaders demonstrate in their own actions that customers are the number one priority (i.e., leaving an internal meeting because a customer is on the phone), employees will reflect that in innovative service and proactive contact.

Which of these sets of behaviors are you exemplifying?
            • Accessible and responsive                • Screened behind secretaries  
            • Action-oriented                                 • Equivocating
            • Accepting prudent risks                     • Accepting only the ultra-safe course
            • Beliefs reflected in behaviors              • Beliefs solely in memos and directives
            • Accepting accountability                    • Avoiding accountability
            • Investing others with trust                   • Cynical and trusting of no one
            • Sharing credit and victories                 • Allowing no one else in the limelight
            • Allowing the freedom to fail                  • Threatening those who don’t succeed
• Developing others                               • Every person for themselves

In modern warfare, generals sit in rear command posts and order troops into battle. During the Civil War, generals mounted their horses, making them the most obvious targets on the battlefield, and led their troops into the battle. We need leaders who ride into battle at the head of their troops.

Paint a Picture of the Future

Organizations make or lose money every day, not by decisions made in the executive suite, but by the thousands of decisions made by employees throughout the organiza­tion. These decisions—providing discounts, accepting returns, selecting suppliers, creating inventories, and so on—should be made in concert with the decisions being made across the hall, down the stairs and around the country (or world). Ideally, ev­eryone needs to be looking at the same picture of the future.

The philosopher Santayana defined a fanatic as “someone who loses sight of the goal, and consequently redoubles efforts to achieve it.” In other words, if we don’t know the port-of-call, no wind is favorable. Leaders provide as clear a picture of the future as possible, clarifying ambiguity and painting in as much detail as possible. That picture of the future becomes the template that employees can use to guide their daily decision making. Is this supplier consistent with that quality goal? Does this policy with customers help us to achieve that market penetration? Will this pricing policy help us to achieve the image we’re seeking?

Are you creating a picture—a vision—of the future that is communicated and relevant to employees? Are you painting in colors, or only in black and white? Is your canvass large enough to support the details and scope, and provide true perspective?

Without a vision of the company’s future, people will focus on what the com­pany is today. Their decisions and actions will perpetuate the current state of affairs or, worse, yesterday’s state of affairs. We have consistently observed organizations doing a fine job of training, educating and developing their people to meet yesterday’s needs when they should be focused on tomorrow’s realities. The training function shouldn’t be painting that picture. Leadership should.

Frequently, organizations pursue a direction that has been established by default. The lack of a clear vision and strategy means that every wind and tide will af­fect the course, and competitors, economic conditions, governmental regulations and societal trends will all have their influence. As employees perceive these events in varying ways, their consequent decisions will vary accordingly, creating conflicts and confusion in the operation. Instead of a clear picture, everyone is viewing a changing kaleidoscope, interpreting the colors and the shapes as best they can.

The attributes of a clear vision should include:
                        • What the enterprise will look like, structurally.  
                        • How it will interact with its customers.
                        • What its primary goals and measures of success will be
                        • How it will interact internally.
                        • Which performance measures will be most valued.
                        • How performers can best contribute to the goals.

In other words, where are we going, how will we get there, how will we know that we’re making progress, and what is my role during the journey? Paint with bold strokes and vivid colors. If you make a mistake, correct it. Even da Vinci was constantly improving what was on his canvas.

Align Individual and Organizational Goals

Even perfect organizational goals are valueless if they aren’t translated into tangible, clear and acceptable individual goals. This is often called “alignment,” meaning that the leader must ensure that the individual is focused on, evaluated and rewarded for the production of results which support the overall direction of the enterprise. Such congruence does not occur automatically. In fact, it’s fairly common to observe em­ployees performing very ably in pursuit of individual goals which are actually anti­thetical to the organization’s goals. That is not an employee failure, it’s a leadership failure.  

In the graphic, you can see that the achievement of the organiza­tion’s vision follows concurrent and mutually-supportive paths. On the left is the op­erational path, which identifies results and consequent tasks to reach goals. On the right is the cultural/behavioral path, which identifies how people must act in order to achieve the goals.

The left might be termed the “core or strategic belief system,” and the right the “operating belief system.” No one outside of the executive suite is especially moti­vated, for example, by the (quite legitimate) corporate goal of increasing shareholder value. In fact, it’s difficult to quickly determine if one’s actions at any given moment are contributing to that end. It’s up to leadership to translate that goal into an operat­ing reality, with the appropriate support and consequences. A bank branch manager would be enhancing shareholder value if he or she emphasized the rollover of retire­ment funds, for example, and the tellers would understand that their reminding customers of new savings instruments' rates was important for the branch.

The steps in alignment for the leader:
                        • Identify and articulate corporate vision.  
                        • Identify and describe key business goals.
                        • Identify and define key operating values.
                        • Establish agreement on tactics needed.
                        • Establish agreement on behaviors required.
                        • Jointly establish performance goals.
                        • Jointly measure results.
                        • Balance the rewards to reflect progress in both paths.

Leaders keep the overall picture in focus by understanding that people view it through various filters and lenses. Fine tuning is required if we are all to see the same future and understand our roles in achieving it.  

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