Pivotal leadership - leaders matter!

David Huggins

In a Swedish study, it was found that those with bad bosses suffered 20% to 40% more heart attacks! Find out what top leaders need to do to invest their time and efforts more productively and to set a positive tone for the organization.


If you are the top person in your organization you have an awesome responsibility, likely more than you ever bargained for and certainly more than you’ve probably contemplated. Over 95% of the workforce rely and depend on you to set the tone for the company and to shield them from unwarranted stress and aggravation. If you do this well, they’ll stay with you; if you don’t, they’ll leave – not just the organization, they’ll leave you!

Two interesting surveys back this up. The Gallup Organization discovered that the relationship between a worker and his immediate supervisor is, by far, the greatest single reason why people leave their jobs. A 2009 Swedish study that tracked over 3,100 men for more than ten years found that those with bad bosses suffered 20% to 40% more heart attacks than those with good bosses.

As a leader, you set the tone for the entire organization. Those who report directly to you, who experience your leadership inadequacies firsthand, will not only suffer more than others but they’ll also pass along your quirks and foibles to others in the organization – with interest! Whether you head up a Fortune 500 company or a more intimate entrepreneurial venture, your success is determined by your ability to stay in touch and in-tune with those persons with whom you interact most frequently and intensely. All bosses matter, and those at the top matter most of all!

In a medium-sized organization, the influence of the top boss was revealed in stark terms. The top boss did almost all of the talking at meetings, interrupted others continuously, and silenced anyone who dissented. Every one of his direct reports vehemently complained about him behind his back, but as soon as he left the meeting, his ‘number two’ started to behave in an identical way. When he left, the next one in line did the same. The top boss has a profound impact on organizational culture. Whether intended or not, top bosses are the focal point of attention for everyone else in the company.


What can be done?

Bosses need to convince others that they are in charge. If they do not do this, their job is impossible and their influence/tenure is short. This, however, is not enough; they must also inspire and sustain their people.

The best bosses stimulate and guide their people to success by utilizing people’s inherent strengths, as well as their cognitive competencies (knowledge, skills and experience), and by fostering optimal levels of contribution in small ways each and every day. The best bosses also boost performance by watching their people’s backs, making it safe for them to learn, to act and to take intelligent risks by shielding them from unnecessary distractions and external interferences.

Of course, when the worker succeeds, so does the boss. We don’t always keep this in proper perspective though, and bosses are often credited with far more influence over organizational wins and losses than they deserve – more than fifty percent rather than the actual fifteen percent. Success materializes too in the form of a longer-term legacy, and the residual impact of both good and bad bosses remains with us for years after the event.

Below are four pointers that might assist you, as the top boss, to invest your time and efforts more productively. Keep your eye on the reality that your influence is both short and longer-term, and that whatever you do is likely to be observed and mimicked by other leaders within your influence – both of these are magnifying factors.


1. Let your belief show

Begin with belief in yourself; you can do what you can envision. Every motivational speaker since James Allen (As a Man Thinketh) has reiterated this message. Stanford business professor, Bob Sutton, uses the expression, ‘Fake it until you make it!’, until all the self doubt is resolved. People will not follow a leader who is unsure of him or herself. You cannot allow your uncertainty to show simply because others will naturally gravitate to those who are certain of their immediate purpose. All the extensive research on ‘belief follows behaviour’ supports this.

There’s a big difference between self confidence and arrogance. The latter brooks no dissention and resists contrary opinions and alternative suggestions. The preferred approach, that of quiet confidence, will seek to influence others indirectly by using mutual examination of consequences and transparent evaluation of facts and decisions.

Facts, or the lack thereof, are rarely the critical issue. Willpower and confidence will usually prevail, especially if you work to harness the strengths of your people. So lead with your inherent strengths, offering them as cornerstones for emerging strategy; then solicit the strengths of others to expand and enhance desired outcomes.

While the eventual objectives should be clearly stated and general dialogue processes defined, others need to be free to contribute to suggest constructive diversions along the way. The effective leader will welcome input but be gently assertive on the assessment and decision processes to be followed.


2. Be the Focus

Clarify the objectives and performance criteria of the enterprise by ‘steering’ processes rather than dictating or directing them. Watch carefully for the responses of others, recognizing and rewarding appropriate contributions to enterprise objectives and deliberately building on the competencies /confidence of others – and then watch your own self confidence grow as you proceed.

A leader focuses the desire for change that’s resident in others and then facilitates the creation of a sustainable new reality. The key words here are ‘focuses’ and ‘facilitates’, and top leaders recognize that this rarely calls for charisma. A coaching style of leadership will work best most of the time. The ‘power’ to make anything happen actually originates in those who follow, who ‘own’ the need for change - the leader only borrows it.

Focusing occurs when core ideas are identified and assimilated by those who need to take action. This means that visions need to be formulated in the minds of people not only by rational processes, but also by emotional experiences. Action is not always taken on cerebral ideas, but decisive action will often be precipitated by strong emotional experiences.

The most effective tool to use here is to guide the thoughts/feelings of others through questions of consequence. Encourage people to come to decisions for themselves. This is so much easier than attempting to impose your thinking and emotions upon them and besides, you’ll have a lot less hard selling to do.

Focusing the behaviour of others is a dynamic process, rather like trying to balance a teeter-totter by placing your feet on both sides at the fulcrum. The movements are small, even tiny, but continuous. They take the form of nudges rather than heavy assaults, and often they occur below the threshold of awareness.

The best bosses work all the time to enhance their own self awareness, to stay in tune with their people’s worries and concerns, their trigger points and their quirks. On top of this, good bosses foster a climate of safety and reasonable security allowing for creative (but not careless) mistakes and well considered risks. When they cannot protect they show clear compassion, support and empathy. Watching the backs of your people will ensure that they watch yours!


3. Make it Easy

Once we know what it is we have to do and why, and we’ve harnessed the committed efforts of others to parallel our own, the next most important task is to make it easy and rewarding for them to do so. We need to protect, encourage and reinforce them.

If you’ve already elected to work with others’ inherent strengths (see above) then you’re more than halfway there – their engines are running and they’re in the driver’s seat. People prefer to do things that are meaningful and important to them – it validates them as individuals and it’s much more likely to be sustained when the pressures mount. The primary task of the boss is not to push for results but rather to steer.

You will likely need to clear the road ahead – to run point or interference. People are readily distracted from their main purpose since there’s so much activity in business and it’s a challenge to remain focused. Henry Minzberg, a celebrated management guru, once said that the main role of a manager was to attend meetings so that staff members are free to work – how true! Why then do so many managers demand results from their staff and then insist that they attend innumerable meetings? In a word – control!

Running interference for your people may mean that you need to protect them from both yourself as well as others. Focused time is very productive, especially for those who need to be creative and innovative.

There’s also the contribution enhancer – reinforcement. Making people feel good about themselves and their contributions sends strong signals about effectiveness and efficiency in processes. A useful tool in this respect is to adopt "feed forward” versus "feedback” where you focus your constructive critique for future performance rather than past performance – it works wonders.


4. Learn together – Grow together

Many bosses appear to believe that deliberate learning is not only a last resort but also that it’s for everyone - else. Clearly, we can’t ignore the fact that the world around us is changing – volatile markets, escalating technologies, encroaching regulations and similar are a way of life. We must change just to stay where we are.

It’s not enough to assert that you’re on the right track; that track is a multi-lane, high speed highway and the last place you want to be is in the middle but standing still. We should all aspire to be a ‘learning organization’, a pivotal idea coined by Peter Senge of Fifth Discipline fame, but this seems to be a luxury we can ill-afford.

Here’s a simple practice that will shift you in that direction with very little investment; once a week call your direct reports together for a twenty-minute, stand-up meeting. Here’s the agenda – three questions that everyone contributes to:

  • What three things have gone well this past week and what can we learn from that?
  • What three things have not gone well and what do we learn from that?
  • What three things will we agree to do differently as a result of what we’ve just learned?

There’s review, open analyses, objectives/standards confirmation, priority setting and future focus all within twenty minutes. There’s collaboration as well, and it’s centered on critical objectives, standards and performance that are the essence of the organization. This is the basis for continuous improvement or kaizen, much beloved of Deming and Juran, the quality gurus.

The secret is to stand up throughout the discussion (which adds energy and focus to the discussion) and to stick to the agenda (which respects your role as interference runner). It’s a "no-brainer” – just try it for a month and see what happens.


The Bottom Line

The top boss’s role is pivotal and it’s definitely common sense – it’s analogous to that of a conductor in front of an orchestra. The essential purpose is to create a symphony out of many different talented contributions, not to usurp the instruments in order to demonstrate that (s)he can do it better. After all, what would be ‘added value’ for an audience; what would they expect and want to experience?

Think about it!


Reprinted with the permission of David Huggins, principal of Andros Consultants and founder of the Polaris Leadership Academy. He can be contacted at d[email protected]g. For more information visit www.polarisprogram.com


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