Ask most managers about their daily leadership activities, and I bet they’d snarl back at you: “I make money.” That’s certainly one aspect of leadership, although we know from research that about 21.4 million middle managers add absolutely no value back to their firm. So, there’s that! The other response you’d likely get to “What leadership activities are you chasing this week?” is Buzzword Boulevard: “I’m working on organic feedback in a mission-driven way.” Both of these answers mean absolutely nothing, and would not help someone become a better leader or manager down the road.
So, what are the leadership activities people need to focus on? I’d argue most of them are probably soft skills, which terrifies a lot of executives. Why? Executives are about execution — not about fluffy stuff like “communicating better.” They want to run their business via The Spreadsheet Mentality, and not run it via “I need to give Johnny his precious feedback.” It’s a real issue. We often gloss it over.
We’ve also got research on eight crucially effective leadership skills, and research on what leadership skills lists should look like for executives. But those are lists of skills — they’re not actions and activities, per se. What do we know about leadership activities?
Leadership Activities: Newer research
Here’s a new article called “The Most Important Leadership Competencies According To Leaders Around The World.” Seems noble. It’s 195 leaders from 15 countries and 30 organizations/industries. Not a huge sample size, but what can we learn about leadership activities? The author groups the key competency findings into themes, seen visually here:
So if you flip this to leadership activities as opposed to competencies, you come to:
- Behave ethically
- Know how to organize yourself
- Communicate well
- Be open to change
- Commit to training others
We got a problem on our hands here.
So if these are the five things that supposedly matter as leadership activities, well …
Are we facing a legitimate leadership crisis in first-world business?
Communicate well: Absolutely the biggest train wreck at almost every organization of any size.
Be open to change: Managers will pivot to a new revenue stream on a dime, but hierarchy usually prevents true openness to change.
Now we’re in a pickle.
Can we get out of said pickle?
It will be challenging. We need better managers in companies, plain and simple — and right now we lack that, and big time. How do we get to better managers focused on the right leadership activities, as opposed to a bunch of supposedly urgent bullshit over here?
This is the path that needs to be traced, methinks:
- Define priorities: Most companies (even those that make tons of $$$) are bad at this. What are the priorities of the company? Usually the answer is “X-percent growth.” OK. So that’s the priority. Now we need …
- Some action steps: What are the plans/operational elements that will get us to the priority? And then we need …
- Task alignment: What are people and teams supposed to be working on towards this goal?
- Systems for shifting this: When goals, priorities, strategies, or tasks change … how is that getting communicated?
In an ideal world (which does not exist), senior leaders would not be individual contributors. Instead, they would focus on the high-level stuff described above. (While seeking input from others.) Middle managers and front-line guys/girls would focus on the people and developing them. A lot of the boxes and reporting that middle/front-line guys used to be has been replaced or automated with technology and software suites. And yet, a lot of managers still spend hours and hours on those types of things — essentially box-checking that Oracle could do for them. What if those managers focused on people and aligning people’s skill sets to big-picture priorities? What a wonderful time to be alive!
What really happens at most companies, though?
People spend most of their week sitting in meetings or on calls — or checking email. Since nary a soul has prepared for any call/meeting, and since e-mail is the biggest joke society has wrought on us all, these are not necessarily “productive” uses of time. That doesn’t matter, of course — the goal isn’t productivity, it’s to be seen as useful or essential. In no place is that truer than the front-line managerial ranks, who often create fires on their own team just to swoop in and “save the day” in order to get lauded by a boss.
Instead of leadership activities that would benefit anyone, most of what we get is:
- Things aimed at control of a situation
- Tasks of low-value
- Worthless time sucks
- Items designed to showcase how busy/important the manager is
At the same time, we go nuts about flexible work arrangements, cripple any concept of work-life balance, and generally treat people like pigs, slobs, and dogs. We’re pretty far off the reservation.
Would better manager training help?
It might — per research, the stats on training are pretty gloomy. I’d argue a bigger thing is contextual training for managers. We live in a very rapid-fire, do-it-now, get-it-done type of culture, especially around work. This leads to a lot of emails flying in with no context aside from “Do this for me.” You often don’t understand the background, the stakeholders, the value of the project, how it will be analyzed, etc. My brother-in-law was just telling me this story. At work, he gets an email with an Excel attachment. The sender (higher up the chain than him) is like “Need feedback for Dan.” That’s it. That is the whole email. You’d probably wonder:
- Who is Dan?
- Feedback on what?
- What is this Excel about/showing?
- Who do I send my feedback to?
- Why is this happening around Christmas?
Good leadership activities = explaining the Excel, who needs it, why, the end goal, Dan’s role, etc. Bad leadership activities = low-context, mostly-bullshit slop fest that was sent. See the difference?
Leadership activities: People stuff is hard
People have been managing other people for centuries (millennia?) and no one has really gotten this right. (Some thought leader just meowed: “Google has!”) It’s hard. Management’s not intuitive. The whole thing is a challenge.
Leadership activities need to emerge from priority, and roles need to be redefined to maximize people — especially if automation is coming fast and furious, and many of our roles will be adjusted anyway.
What else would you add on leadership activities?