February 18, 2010

Following or not Quite?

This time, I got to observe as a follower and support my team leader. She was not exactly a willing team leader and I empathised with her. People always say “a leader must have clear focus and must be able to explain the objectives...” bla, bla bla.

But there isn’t a single individual who knows everything. I watched her; confused and quite clueless about the material we were working with.  Meanwhile, the other team members who had a better understanding were careful not to “take over” the leadership role, as some had constantly been accused of this.

She never really made a decision on her own or countered ours. Initially we ended discussions with “...but you are the leader, what do you decide?” Her decision was always whatever we thought was right. The leadership changed but the new one, was not better informed. By the end of the simulation, the wording had changed to “hears what we think you should do” and the leader would comply. We were working against time.

I thought the leader’s (first one) actions were quite sensible in that case, but the other team members thought her role had been “taken from her” by the followers. So were we supposed to not offer guidance as much as our leader requested it simply because we were to allow her to “do her job”?...even if she didn’t know how? Bearing in mind, she didn’t want to lead in the first place.

I think that a wise leader does surround himself or herself with people who are more informed. I think that a leader who fails to step back and let a more knowledgeable team member, “call the shots,” while still retaining the power of the final word, is better than one who pretends to understand the situation and then makes an absolute mess of it. Isn’t that what the humility we’d been raving on is all about?

But what happens when the team members view this attitude as a weakness on the leader’s part? I personally would prefer a leader who admits to being clueless on some occasions, and making every effort to understand the situation, even if it means letting someone else play a more active “guiding” role than one who keeps silent because they’re the “boss” and causes a failure which would have been avoided.

Once again those, two words “culture” and “perception” come back to haunt me! There really are no answers to this leadership question, I see. In that case, maybe it really does come naturally to some people and not others.

February 16, 2010

Easier Said Than Done (the end)

Leadership experience number 3. My team would oppose me on an issue and I would have to talk through it with them and come to some sort of conclusion.

I read through the briefing sheets and thought, hmmm, intriguing, I better gear up for a battle, while still staying, pleasant, calm and collected... Five minutes later, or so it seemed, we’d reached a compromise and problem was solved. I was rather disappointed.

Perhaps it was because I was expecting fierce opposition. I only had that from one person. I listened to everyone’s view points, took on board the good that I had not thought of, and countered the bad in a rational way. Later I was told that as a leader I was friendly, approachable and I listened. But I also had strictness to my tone that let the team know that the issue was serious and unacceptable. I wondered if that was a good thing. I didn’t think I sounded stern at all. I thought I was quite pleasant.

Well I did learn something when I pondered over it later. An effective leader can be stern and pleasant. A leader must be able to exercise authority without creating enemies. They hadn’t opposed me not because they were afraid to speak their minds. It was because I had managed to communicate effectively, something I’d not done so well on another task. Perhaps this time, not having a language barrier helped, but the moral of this story is this: Effective communication is one attribute that a leader must possess.

Easier Said Than Done (continued)

My last leadership experience reminded me of a previous one which also left me quite frazzled, but in a different way. This time it was not because the team were not cooperative. It was because I had done my best to communicate information which I believed everyone had understood. Apparently someone hadn’t, but had kept silent.

As team leader, I read through all the task material away from my group. It was a lot of information. I was not allowed to mark the briefing sheets or make notes on them. I knew that without that allowance I would forget facts. I wanted everyone on the team to be on the same page. So I did what I thought was wise. I brought it all back to my group and explained the exercise. Everyone said they understood. Just to be sure no information was missed out, and to involve everyone in the activities, I had another member read through the material aloud so everyone would hear the detailed information. I asked if everyone understood. There were yes’ and nods all around, so we began.... We did not complete the task.

When it was time to critique the leader, I was surprised by the many exclamations of, “we did not understand the task very well from the beginning...you did not explain it well enough...I had to explain it to another team member in a different language...” I felt bad because I assumed that because everyone nodded to my “are we clear...can we begin...do we understand” (and I purposefully used “we” and not “you”) questions, that they really did understand. I felt bad because there was someone on my team who needed to be communicated with in a different language and I had not noticed that. I felt bad because I got the impression that my team was blaming me for the task failure; even a little irritated by that.

I have been thinking about that incident since then, and wondering what more I should have done? They said I was friendly, approachable and a “good” leader.   So why didn’t they ask me questions? Was it another cultural issue because this was another multicultural team. I still cannot understand the incident. It made leadership seem almost impossible. It made me admire almost every CEO of a multinational organisation. I understood why there are so few “great leaders”. It almost made me not want to lead again. I said “almost”.

February 15, 2010

Easier Said Than Done

Two teams were merged into one in order to tackle a set of problems.  Although we had a specific deadline, somehow that message did not seem to register to everyone.  There was the nonchalant one, the jokers, the-20-years-behind-the-discussion bunch (not because they did not understand, but because they were not paying attention). 

Everyone turned up late after a mini break before the session. When they eventually settled down, I soon realised that time would be up and nothing would be done.  So I tried to start the discussion.  At first I tried to be coercive and hoped that they'd see reason.  Then I got more irritated as time passed so I resorted to a more authoritative tone.  Discussions began, but slowly, while the tom foolery continued at one end of the table. 

Eventually, I snapped!  They did not understand why I was irritated.  I did not understand why they didn't feel the urgency.  Okay, it was a bicultural team; none of them western.  Did that have anything to do with the carefree attitude to time?  Maybe. I am only thinking of this now but I didn’t then.

I was angry because I did not want to be part of the team that failed to meet the target and for no good reason. I resorted to tackling the questions on my own in silence and anger. One of the jokers then decided to take on the discussion. However, even if the rest of the team were not following the discussion, he would proceed with only one member. We didn’t even get half way through the questions. Our tutor said it was time to return to the larger group and present!

So my questions are: Did my actions make me an ineffective leader? Perhaps in this situation, yes. Are there followers who could make even the best leaders fail? I am starting to believe that, not because I think I am such a great leader already, but because I truly believe that enough attitudes of that sort could potentially cripple even an effective leader. And who said autocratic leadership was a bad idea?

Oh, and they did expect me to present the “information” because “you are the best in the group.” What information? Oh right, that would be the one we never gathered!

January 14, 2010

Not Infallible!

Is one not an "effective leader" if he/she fails to achieve the desired goal?  I think not.  As much as we expect great things, maybe even the impossible, from people who take up leadership roles, they are human.  Thus they are bound to make mistakes.  To even earn the title "leader" they probably had to make mistakes that others, as followers, would never imagine they could make.  Leadership comes with experience.  It comes with an ability to listen, to recognise mistakes and self-correct or accept outside criticisms graciously. 

A leader who fails to achieve the desired goal is not an ineffective one.  He/she has simply failed the task and perhaps acquired another learning point for...everyone...hurray to that!  A leader has only truly failed if he he/she does not recognise a mistake that is made, or cannot humbly accept his/her faults.  Leaders are NOT INFALLIBLE!  It takes humility to recognise that. 

January 13, 2010

…and then there were the Silent Ones


"Silence is golden;" that very popular phrase.  If you think of "silence" as unspoken words and not just a reluctance or refusal to speak, I am certain that most people would become better listeners and perhaps better leaders in the process.

Discussing leadership today caused me to think more about the wealth of information that one in a leadership position might loose simply because they didn't listen; or perhaps not hard enough.  Part of being an effective leader is listening hard enough to realise that there's something you're not hearing.  Suppose one was leading a team with a particularly quiet individual.  Should that individual be dismissed because they are percieved as  "unintelligent, arrogant, disinterested...........because there's no time to figure him out" etc.  Sometimes taking the time to encourage someone to speak could save valuable time or produce brilliant results. 

For some reason, someone's mouth has been stopped.  An effective leader would  notice that there was a missing voice and therefore probably a missing solution or idea.  The "silent one" might be the one with the gold mine.  And isn't that what leadership is also about; bringing out the the gold mine, the best in people? 

If you're going to lead, you must here what is not said.  So ask the silent one in your corner, "what's on your mind?" 

January 12, 2010

Leadership is 'Give and Take'


“Different people look for different things in a leader...a leader is one who can inspire others” (Leadership and Excellence lecture). Everyone has different needs but if inspiration is the common thread that binds all our needs, this challenges us to think beyond attaining an ultimate goal, that is, whatever the leader has set.

I have come across the word “leadership” in so many contexts but have never thought of it in terms of the followers needs. I have mostly thought of it in terms of the leader’s capabilities or the need to achieve a goal and who best to influence others in order to get the job well done. In a group discussion another dimension was even further emphasised; a leader does not have to be liked!

Perhaps, more effective leaders would emerge if aspirants thought more of what their potential followers would gain from their leadership. What drives these people? What are their personal goals? How do they tie in to the ultimate goal? How can followers be helped to realise their personal goals and achieve them while attaining the ultimate goal?

Leadership should promote a relationship of give and take between the leader and the led. It should not be a situation where the ultimate goal is met, pats are given on the back to the “team,” and yet when all is said and done, those who made it happen feel wonder whether it was worth putting in all that effort.

An effective leader should be able to make others believe that they are better because they followed him or her. He must inspire others to be their best and be able to attain their own goals. An effective leader is one whose followers, in working towards the ultimate goal, become empowered to win their personal battles.

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