How to be a good role model

Don't wait until you reach the top to learn the art of leadership, says John van Maurik

It has never been more important to mind your Ps and Qs. No, I do not mean being polite - although business leaders do have a moral obligation to be courteous. It is about being effective.

These Ps and Qs relate to a number of key talents required of business leaders at all levels if they and their organisations are to survive in these tough post-recessionary times .

In the workplace, leadership is needed as never before as good leaders give meaning in difficult and uncertain times. Often this "meaning" is not provided and in the interests of maximising shareholder value decision- makers keep a watchful eye on the quarterly figures rather than on the motivation of those generating them. All too often "staff" are regarded as expendable overheads rather than the true assets they are. What is also true is that the most visible and most meaningful leadership is often delivered not from the very top but by those at the general and middle levels of management.

It was with this in mind that I set out to examine the key talents required of tomorrow's leaders by interviewing a number of people regarded both by their organisations and their staff as effective when it came to leadership. The one over-arching criterion was that they should not be at the very top.

Excellent as Branson, Harvey Jones, Roddick and Gates may be, they are too far removed from the ordinary manager to be viable role models. The key question was "what are the messages from these unsung heroes and heroines that will help others be more effective as leaders".

Those interviewed included a variety of fascinating individuals in organisations as diverse as the Eastern Orchestra Board, the Metropolitan Police and Churchill Insurance and from countries as far apart as the UK, the USA, South Africa and Singapore. What emerged was that the existing attributes of leadership, such as having a vision, being able to persuade and acting as a change agent, were all still as relevant as ever. Significantly, however, three new requirements had come to the fore. These were the three Ps.

First, Purpose. Nearly all those interviewed had a strong desire to "do something with their lives". This went beyond straightforward ambition and was in no way connected to such traditional leadership concepts as having a vision for the future.

Instead, this sense of purpose was coupled with a strong desire to have led a useful life, to have achieved and not to have wasted either time or opportunity - in effect, to be all used up when it was over. As an elderly lady from North Carolina once told me when I said she was remarkably active for her years, "Honey, I want to burn out not rust out!"

Second, Politics. Nearly all those interviewed had difficulty in dealing with organisational politics. One of the main difficulties was that it was usually a silent game. They often did not know when it was being played and, moreover, none had been trained in how to cope with this phenomenon.

If company culture can be described "as the way that we do things around here" then perhaps company politics can be described as "the way we do things to people around here". It is a sad fact that wherever people gather together to tackle a task there will be tensions, rivalries, jealousies, hidden agendas and plain mischief.

What emerged was that to survive, you have to understand the political forces at work in order to appreciate the games that might be played against you. However, the interviewees emphasised that the "game" was not worth the sacrifice of one's own integrity and self-respect. So to survive the effective leader must be aware and must learn to apply the awareness in ethical ways. Key skills are those of questioning, listening, intuition and creating a united team that will in itself act to defuse politics.

Third, Process. The effective leaders were good at being able to facilitate teams and individuals so that they understand what needs to be done and what is expected of them.So managing the process is a leadership activity while instituting business process re-engineering might be seen as installing a management tool .

And what of the Qs? They are questions. Effective questioning is at the heart of it all. It helps the leader define the values that underpin his or her Purpose, it is essential in defining the cause or nature of Political games and, finally, open questions are the quintessential tool in the good Process facilitator's kit.

It is interesting to note that, of the skills outlined here, questioning techniques are the only ones to be formally taught. The others nevertheless remain crucial if leaders at the general manager level are to play their part in helping us all overcome the fear and dilemmas of operating in these post-recessionary times.

Talking of questions, here is another. Has the day of the conventional MBA passed? Perhaps we should be asking if the time has come for a Masters in Business Leadership and whether this is more relevant to today's pressing needs.

The writer teaches at Sundridge Park management centre. His book 'The Portable Leader' will be published by McGraw Hill in the summer.

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