A Friday thought on leadership strength.

Everyone wants a strong leader, but what does a strong one look like?

What constitutes a strong leader?  Is it an ability to steadfastly stick to your view when all around you are telling you that you are wrong.  Is it making tough decisions even when they have a negative impact on your people?  Is it holding confidential information and acting upon it, and carrying the burden and stress it brings whilst shielding your team from the difficult truth of the situation?  Each of these behaviours could be a sign a leadership strength, and yet, each could also be a sign of weak leadership.  Strong leadership is more about doing what is right rather than doing what appears tough.

In my many decades of work experience, I have occasionally been told that I shy away from conflict.  I am usually told this by someone who introduces conflict into any situation, always with a damaging impact to the business.  However, in modern business, the willingness to walk headlong into a conflict situation is often seen as a sign of leadership strength.  However, is this actually the case?  To understand this, we perhaps need to explore the meaning of the word conflict.  Two people or groups of people can have conflicting views, this is a natural feature of business and indeed the world.  This is not what people tend to mean when they talk about managing conflict at work.  They generally mean managing heated situations where tempers flare and things get out of hand.  While I have managed many such situations, the key to strong leadership is to avoid such situations arising in the first place.  Rather than avoiding conflict by avoiding talking about something, or burying your head in the sand or even worse, avoiding a person so that you don’t have to have that conversation, one should avoid conflict by managing the situation before it becomes one of conflict.

Expanding this into practical examples of behaviour, lets simplify things greatly.  A manager who shouts at a team member because they have done something with which they disagree is a weak leader.  Shouting in the workplace is allowing your emotions to take over reason.  The manager will feel better for having ‘got it off their chest’ and the team member will feel devalued and their productivity is likely to be lower than optimum for weeks or even months as a result.  So the manager has made themselves feel good at the cost of the business.  This is weak leadership and bad business.

The manager who feels equally passionate about a team member’s wrong doing, but chooses to talk about the facts of the matter with the employee, and calms any tension by removing their own emotion from the communication, is a strong leader.  This is a leader who is putting the needs of the business before their own emotional satisfaction.  This takes strength of character and self control.  This results in a worker who is aware of their failings, but feels that they have been listened to and is prepared to do what is required to improve their work.  This is good business.

Strong leadership is good business.

Here we have a key learning point.  Strong leadership is good business.  Not allowing your emotion to control your communication style is good for the company.  However, those who suggest that someone who doesn’t use aggression in the workplace is afraid of conflict, see this strong leadership as acquiescing to the employees.  This is not the case.  As a leader you are denying your emotional response for the benefit of the business, not your employee.  Pulling apart the facts of your underperformance is not an easy thing to do.  Many employees would rather be shouted at for ten minutes to get it over with.  They walk away feeling a justified hatred for their boss, their boss walks away thinking they are strong and have laid down the law.  The only one who has suffered is the business.  Managing conflict out of your workplace is not being soft on your employees, it is doing the right thing for your business.

A regular mantra that I have issued is: strong leaders let underperformers grow, weak leaders let underperformers go.  While most people tend to agree with this, I have been challenged on occasion by people who say something along the lines of, well that is what you would say if you don’t have the strength to sack someone.  Sacking or summarily removing someone from the business should be an extraordinary occurrence.  It should only really happen when the selection process has been flawed or the employee has been dramatically changed by a major life event that means they are no longer able to perform in their role or any other available role in the company.  In 20 years as a people manager I have had to remove someone from the business due to poor performance on only one occasion.  If your hit rate is significantly more than 1 per 20 years, you might benefit from exploring your style.

What we are talking about here is a general principal.  We are not saying that you should never remove someone from your business.  No one is suggesting that you have to struggle along with someone who will never share the business objectives.  However, if the performance of someone on your team starts to drop and your first thought is to replace them, then you probably aren’t managing efficiently and are looking for an easy out.  Leaders are often paid good money, almost always more than their subordinates.  This money is paid on the expectation of hard work.  Sacking people isn’t hard, it is very easy and low effort on your part.  One difficult conversation and let the HR team process the rest.  Managing poor performance is hard work.  It requires a lot of difficult conversations and a lot of time and effort on your part.  So when considering leadership strength, do we associate hard work with weakness and taking the easy way out with strength?  I certainly don’t.  Don’t accept a criticism from someone for not getting rid of a team member if you believe you can improve their performance and get them back to where they need to be.

What is the collateral impact of weak leadership?

Shall we challenge this?  Some of you may disagree with this postulation.  You may think being aggressive is a sign of strength, in which case good luck.  You may agree that aggression does not equal strength, but feel that replacing someone is just easier and therefore more efficient than performance managing them.  On the face of it this may appear to be the case.  However, what is the collateral impact?  It’s time for some bullets:

  • First and foremost, recruitment is a drag!  If you have ever tried to recruit for a skilled role, you will have spent hours and days wording adverts, reviewing job descriptions and person specifications, completing paperwork, filtering CVs, countless interviews and assessment centres, follow up meetings, on-boarding, training and assessment.  While recruitment can be a positive opportunity to bring in some new ideas and working methods, the work involved cannot be denied.
  • Better the devil you know.  Recruitment brings with it risk.  You have someone who you understand, their capabilities are known along with their style and compatibility with the team.  Replacing them with a new person can bring risk.  What if you get the selection wrong?  Might it be better to manage the person you have?
  • Team impact.  What impact does getting rid of someone have on the team?  In my experience it is never a positive one.  Even if the person removed is a proverbial pain, they will attract the sympathy of their colleagues.  And of course, the question will be asked, ‘what if I am next?’  The result is ordinarily a drop in productivity and a fall in respect for the leader.  Especially if the process was not handled sensitively.
  • Interruption.  Replacing someone means that there is a period when they stop doing what they were doing.  This is followed by a period where someone new is learning what they did.  You will then have a period of adjustment.  All in all, you could have a month of low productivity, or it could even be a year.  I once knew an operations manager who recruited an operations technician who took 3 years of training before they were passed out to operate the plant on their own.  That is one hell of an impact on team productivity!
  • Your productivity.  If you get a reputation as an axe wielder, you will find that this effects attitudes towards you.  Trust will be low.  This means that people will protect information and protect each other.  You now find yourself managing a business where you only have access to limited information.  Information which your team have elected to share with you.  Imagine doing your job with only half the information you have now.  Your delivery will definitely suffer.

We could continue to add bullets, however, this is a persuasive article, not a skills tutorial.  If you haven’t been persuaded by now, you probably will never be.

Earlier I stated that being aggressive, or sacking someone is an easy way out.  I stand by that, it is the path of least resistance, the route that requires least effort…..in the short term.  As you see from the bullets above, weak leadership requires less effort to get started, however, it brings with it huge inefficiencies.  Through taking the easy option and ruling with emotion you are damaging your business.  It goes without saying, that managing a sub-optimal business is going to be harder work than managing an efficient one.  So, although you may think you are harnessing efficiency and expediting improvement, you are in fact establishing a huge workload for yourself in the near future.

This Friday thought is a true Friday thought.  There is no science referenced here, just the experience of a behavioural scientist who has worked in industry since the 1990s.  This thought started to rattle around in my head on a Friday after starting a new contract with a new client.  Earlier this week I was introduced to a team of people.  All of whom treated each other with respect.  The leaders of this team exhibited a professional and collaborative leadership style from the outset, rooted in respect.  Leadership strength was immediately apparent.  The company has been in business for well over a hundred years and has experienced steady and sustained growth throughout.  Meeting these people helped me think about some of the good leaders I have worked with.  It also helped highlight some of the less effective leaders I have seen.  So I rather boldly decided that I would share my thoughts on leadership strength in the hope that it might help those who are seeking a leadership style to suit their role.


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