November 21, 2014

The Leadership Process

A senior manager in one of South Africa’s leading banks told me once that his daughter asked him what he actually did at work. He said the question stumped him. After reflecting a while the best he could muster was ‘ah, I go to meetings’.

This man’s response is not unique. I have found, over the years, that very few leaders have a handle on their own job description. The result of this is that they spend their time oscillating between various result focused activities with a vague sense of helpless disquiet. The fact of the matter is that they do not know their own process. They do not have a clear sense of what precisely they need to be actively contributing.

So, the question is: what is the leader’s process? What is the essential contribution of a leader in an organisation? The most useful way of exploring this question is to use a sporting analogy. In a game of cricket it is very disabling for a player to focus too much on the scoreboard. Great players always put an emphasis on the process of playing the game rather than on the result as it appears on the scoreboard. The scoreboard gives the player indicators about the strategy he should use when playing but the playing is what the player gives or contributes, the score is the result that he gets as the consequence of his contribution.

There is an added twist to the problem when one introduces a leadership role, because the role of the leader is not the same as a player’s role. The role of the leader is more akin to the role of a coach. The coach’s process has to be concerned with what he does to the player. The outcome of what he does to the player is that player does something different on the field and that there is a change in the result. The coach’s process, his giving, is his instruction to the player. The outcome of this instruction is the player’s playing and, subsequently, the result. This means that the leader understands that he is not the agent who produces the result. The player is the agent and the leader’s primary role is to enable that agency.

There are fundamentally three variables that need to be satisfied for the player to be entrusted with agency over the game:

 1.    The player is equipped to play the game. In Care and Growth speak we refer to this as the player having the means to do what is required of him, which includes variables such as having the authority to do so, having the tools and the resources to so, etc.

2.    The player is able to play the game. That he knows both why he should do what is required of him and how to do it.

3.    That the player is entrusted with playing the game.

This suggests that the coach’s process should be constructed against the three deliverables: That the player is equipped to play the game, that the player is enabled to play the game and that the player is entrusted with the game. The first two variables are the easiest to visualize and therefore to turn into concrete activities. Once the leader has understood what means he should contribute to the player he can practically define what he must do to get those means to the player. Similarly, on having identified what competency or ability would enhance the player’s performance, it is a relatively straightforward matter for the coach to identify what he must do specifically to enable the player.

The last requirement, the issue of entrusting the player with the game, superficially means that the player is accountable for playing the game, and owns both the successes and failures of his playing.  In a deeper sense it challenges what the leader or coach owns and accepts accountability for. In this sense the leader is doing a non doing, because it is about allowing the player to do.  It requires a shift of intention by the coach, a shift in what the coach fundamentally cares about. We have come to understand this way of looking at the leader’s role as the Care and Growth Leadership Model. It is about the leader understanding that his principle deliverable is the player and the enablement of the player. In essence this model requires the leader to understand that the purpose of his role is not to produce a result or to have a game played, the purpose of the role is enable a player.

It is just here where most leaders fail miserably. I have the privilege of serving as external faculty with a number of business schools. One would assume that cultivating leaders is the key deliverable of a business school, so asking the question ‘what does the word leadership mean’ of students in that context should produce very insightful and erudite answers. Distressingly, by and large, the answers to the question are very uniform. They are variations of the theme that ‘leadership is about achieving a result through people.

Role of a LeaderThe fundamental effect of this intent of the leader or coach is that it disables the player’s agency. Imagine you played for a cricket team that suddenly got a new coach, and the first time he met you he said to the team ‘My job as the coach is to achieve a result, and I am going to use you, the players, as my resources to achieve that end’. If you thought that the fellow was serious, he meant what he said, you would conclude that he only cares for you in so far as you are a means to his end, that he is the agent and you are the tool. You would beat a hasty retreat to the nearest trade union recruiter. You may also try to loosen the wheel nuts of his car. You would be in a state of conflict with him because he is in the relationship with you to get something out of you. Miserably, the impact of this conflict on the results cannot be good.

This conflict is the product of your experience as player, which is that you are the one who is playing the game. This does not mean to say that the coach does have the right to comment on either the results or your playing of the game, but he may only do so when it is concerned with enhancing your agency. In other words he uses what he sees on the field and on the scoreboard to enable you. He actually does the inverse of what my lambs at business school get taught. He does not use the player to achieve result, he uses the result and the game that is being played as his means to produce a player. His product is you, the player. He is fundamentally there to contribute to you. To give to you.