Leadership is not about rank or privilege, but a responsibility towards people. It is an understandable desire of the newly minted manager to want to erect an edifice in his own image but we should resist the temptation to lean in with process and structure, throwing up roadblocks for our people to contend with. The first action of leadership should be to step back and observe. Secondly, to form authentic, non-obvious and revealing insights and to then form ideas from those insights. In doing so, we also need to recognise that one of the most significant barriers to the execution of ideas is ourselves and therefore remember to stay out of the way as much as we reasonably can.
Whether your product is widgets or ideas, that product is only acheivable by and through people. We’ve started to advertise roles where a desirable attribute is described as the ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. I’d have to take a long hard think before joining any organisation where opacity is so ingrained that it needs to recruit for the status quo. A good leader will lead people, and communicate, with clarity. Without clarity people have a tendency to drift or in extreme cases to skive, slack or bunk off. The poor manager will see this as laziness and address the symptoms rather than the underlying ailment. If an interviewer asks you how you deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, I’d suggest asking them why that situation exists and what the business is doing to address it.
Drucker identified the following twelve de-motivating factors in business (and its no surprise that ambiguity features in the list):
A culture where internal politiking is seen as the way to get ahead
Promoting destructive internal competition
Changing the rules in the middle of a project
Opaque expectations of employee performance and results
Unnecessary rules and bureaucracy
Over-managing at the expense of autonomy
Failing to share information needed to perform roles
Unproductive and unneccessary meetings
Emphasis on criticism and negativity
Continued tolerance of poor performance
Underestimating or under-utilizing capabilities
We can see that all twelve are directly people-related. There are no problems in business (excepting natural disasters) that are not people-related. We might blame technology for our woes but that technology was conceived of, designed, specified and implemented by people. It is used by people. When it does not perform it is because of a human failing, not a technological one. Projects do not fail through poor process. They fail because people used the wrong process or did not follow the right process. Or they failed to communicate effectively. New products flop because they aren’t what people want or need and it’s people who called it incorrectly. Algorithms are written by people. They might be executed by computers but when an automated process falls flat, “the computer says no”, it’s a person problem. “Change management” is a useful abstract phrase because it gets people at arms length and becomes about process. You can’t motivate people to come on the journey with you through a Gantt chart.
People are de-motivated by other people. As leaders it’s all about knocking over barriers. Decommission your mood-hoovers. Cancel that meeting. Communicate in plain, understandable language. Set clear expectations and then stay the hell out of the way.