What Is The True Essence Of Leadership?

What makes a great leader?

Seeing a business through a pandemic? Achieving quick results?

Firefighting and expediting are often mistaken for leadership responsibilities. But this belief can in fact hinder an organisation. The Manufacturing Institute’s Leadership and Enterprise Excellence Coach, Adam Buckley, explores the true essence of leadership…

Firefighting issues

When there’s a burning platform, defences are brought up to survive it – from cutting costs to the last resort of redundancies. And that’s the best course of action at the time.

But what happens is that things are just continuously reorganised. Every time your business hits an iceberg, it becomes like the Titanic, narrowly saving itself from sinking by rearranging the deckchairs. You’re just moving the same parts around, time and time again.

Whilst dealing with a burning platform is the right thing to do, it isn’t leadership. What you want is burning ambition that prevents the blaze in the first place.


Separating management and leadership

Managers deal with the burning platform and the day-to-day, whereas leadership is about making transformational changes when things are going well.

I speak to many organisations who are over-managed and under-led. This is down to not knowing what leadership actually is. It’s a different behaviour from management, and it has different requirements. Leadership focuses on the long term – pursuing that burning ambition to build a better future and more sustainable organisation.

With leadership, things change. But, unfortunately, managers are often promoted to a leadership position and end up clinging on to the management aspect. They’re firefighting and expediting, attempting to deliver those results which we think reflect success. This has a negative knock-on effect. When leaders hold on to their manager responsibilities, it pushes the other management levels down and means everyone’s working at the wrong level. That’s when this over-management occurs.

But, as Jonny Wilkinson put it, “To lead, you have to take someone somewhere they’ve never been before.” That is the true essence of leadership.

Moving away from firefighting

I won’t deny that leadership is tough, but it’s by no means complicated. It’s actually very easy to see where you want to be, and draw up some aspirations for the organisation’s future. Achieving them is the more difficult part, because we get lost in the short-termism and relentless quest for those right-now results.

This trickles down into the organisation. Leaders make it seem as if firefighting and expediting is the single most important thing, influencing the culture and behaviours of the business as a whole.

Seth Godin once said that “leaders get the culture they deserve”, so it’s up to them to set a different standard. You need to manage both the short and long term – focus on the future, whilst making sure the managers bring about the results. Unfortunately, many don’t trust their managers to do so, and aren’t aware of what the long term actually is.

Enabling, not driving

The entire business needs to be clear how it’s going to reach its ambitions. To get people on board, leaders need to create the conditions, culture and climate that will help people contribute to the journey. Then they can take ownership of their role in the journey themselves.

This will enable them to change, because you can’t drive change – or even engagement or motivation. It’s actually intrinsic: we make the decision whether we’re engaged or not, not the people leading us. All you can do as a leader is to build the environment where individuals have the opportunity to be engaged. Allow them to get involved, make decisions, be a freethinker and develop themselves, and they’ll reach the point where they can decide whether to engage or not.

Whilst you might get some minor results if you try to push change, you’ll ultimately be met with resistance. You have to let go and allow for two-way trust by giving people a voice and opportunities for collaboration. This isn’t a quick win; you need to provide them with the time to be able to co-create the future of the organisation.

Progressing the business

“Change is inevitable. Progress is optional.” – Tony Robbins

Change happens. We can’t stop it, and it’s not always good change. Therefore, as leaders, we can’t become complacent – we need to aim to be better rather than letting change simply happen or being blind to it. This way, when there are challenges, we can ride them out and not have to tackle that burning platform.

This is especially important for manufacturing leaders. There’s more change than ever in our industry, with Industry 4.0 transforming our sector for the better. That’s why we’ve developed our leadership development bootcamp. It enables leaders to reach that true essence; you’ll be able to create improvements on the shop floor, in the company culture, and allow the team to move forwards and achieve goals.

To find out more about the bootcamp, get in touch. It is currently offered virtually, but we hope our face-to-face programme will be available again in the new year.

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