Thursday, 10 April 2014

Leaders, show the way - be yourself

There are many definitions of leadership but let’s define it as “a directive and facilitating function that enables teams to perform better (or worse) than they would on their own”.  In other words, whilst we would hope that leaders are a force for good, they are sometimes the opposite.

Leadership is provided by giving both explicit and implicit direction to teams on what needs to be achieved and why.  Explicit direction is given in the content of verbal or written instructions.  Implicit direction (or what is often called, “leadership by example”) is found in the way instructions are given or, indeed, the behaviour of the leader in question.  When these two modes are aligned, the direction is clear; when they are in conflict with one another, it is not. 

Leaders can, through the priorities they demonstrate in their day-to-day lives, exert great influence over those that report to them.  If ‘the boss’ thinks something is important, then it becomes important for everyone else as well.  By contrast, if they repeatedly miss safety meetings, then an inference is drawn that safety doesn’t matter.

In other words, leaders have a genuine responsibility when it comes to getting their organisations to learn from experience and improve performance.  If they seriously wish to encourage self-criticism and honesty from those that they lead (in order to enable learning), then they have to demonstrate their own willingness to admit mistakes.  For some this may be difficult for fear of appearing vulnerable or weak.  In my experience, such fears are unfounded.

In 2011, whilst working for the British Army’s Lessons Exploitation Centre (about which, more is available here), I attended a post-operational debrief during which one Commanding Officer spoke of the arrogance and misconceived ideas with which he had deployed.  One particular operation that he had planned, involving 3 sub-units, was undone “by 2 blokes with a moped and a mobile phone”, forcing him to re-visit his assumptions about his environment and his role within it.  This taught him much and his modesty enabled those of us in the audience to benefit as well.  No-one thought any worse of him for this; rather, we respected him all the more for it.

By contrast, another officer’s briefing offered up his “enduring tactical imperatives” of which the final one was, “Be a learning and adaptive organisation.” When asked, “What mistakes did you make on your tour, if any, and what did you learn from them?” his response was, “Hmm...I didn’t come prepared for that one…. we always talk about the good points, don’t we? Can I come back to you? Right, next question…”
As well as demonstrating humility and honesty, leaders can promote organisational learning and good knowledge management by actively listening to their staff and fostering an environment where people feel comfortable to question the status quo.  This may be difficult for some since it enabled them to rise to their current position.  Nevertheless, failing to consider new ideas or justifying things because “that’s they they’ve always been done” means they are unlikely to tap their organisation’s true potential. 

More material on the kind of behaviour that helps learning is available in the Organisational Learning Culture handout from the downloads section of the Knoco website, here.

For a conversation about leadership and its role in knowledge management, please contact me direct or visit the Knoco website.

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