Becoming a leader

“People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader works in the open, and the boss in the covert. The leader leads, and the boss drives.”—Theodore Roosevelt

People ask the difference between a leader and a boss. The leader works in the open, and the boss in the covert. The leader leads, and the boss drives.—Theodore Roosevelt

It wasn’t long ago that leaders were thought to be born.   Leadership theories included trait-based approaches, like the ‘great man theory’, science-based theories such as Total Quality Management and of course the theorists and psychologists like Maslow and Hertzberg.  You can find a decent summary of the leading theories here, but it runs to many pages!

Finding one management and leadership primer that covers most of the bases would be a great starting point for a young (or aspiring) leader. But why bother, if leadership is a born talent?

Well, the development of such a primer is the life’s work of John Adair. Born in the UK in 1934; he developed his action-centred management theory while teaching at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, before joining the Industrial Society.  It was John Adair who first posited that leadership could be trained; and since then his model of leadership and management has been at the heart of much of the teaching and research since.

Adair identified three overlapping areas of management and leadership:

  • Achieve the Task: The task needs to be well defined. He was first to suggest the SMART acronym for setting the scope of a mission: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Constrained.
  • Build and maintain a Team: Entrepreneurs are often loners. They often fall into believing that “if you want a job done well, do it yourself”. John Adair emphasised the fact that not only should leaders build teams, they should also develop those teams to maximise their achievements.
  • Develop the Individual: And people are not just cogs in those teams. Leaders must understand team members as individuals; not only with different personalities, skill sets, strengths, needs, aims and fears etc., but also subject to change and even occasional irrationality. This insight enables a leader to assist and support the individuals under their command.

Each area overlaps because each is reliant on the others: the task needs a team; rarely can a single person accomplish the objective; if the group or individual needs are not met, then the team will suffer; and that in turn affects the performance of the team in delivering the task.

At this point, the model may seem a little vague, but Adair went on to identify particular aspects for focus in each area.  When these are studied and practised in detail, developing leaders can begin to understand the skills they need to nurture.

Here are three practices to be encouraged in each area of Adair’s model (there are more for the interested reader). For experienced leaders, this list may remind you of all the skills and tools that you now use without thinking.

The Task:

The most critical area of defining an activity; making sure you actually do the things you need to do.

  • Defining and Communicating the task – Defining it in SMART terms will take some effort the first time, but identifying each parameter will help you make sure you have all the assets you need before setting out.  There is another (equally famous) rule here: “Preparation and Planning Prevent Poor Performance”.
  • Resource allocation –  you will need to understand how best to apply the resources you have (often, what little you have to play with). It’s worth seeking advice from experienced project and programme managers, as this is a core skill for them.  Getting this right makes the task easier to achieve and will reduce the stress on your team.
  • Planning – create a plan to achieve the task that clearly identifies the deliverables, with incremental measurement, timescales, approach and completion criteria.  Make sure you tick off all the necessary deliverables identified in the task.

Building and managing a team:

For a new leader and manager, this can be the most daunting of skills to develop.

  • Communication and approach – give some thought to establishing  a style and culture for the team.  How do you intend to work together? This includes developing an ability to anticipate and resolve group conflicts, struggles or disagreements with consistency of approach.
  • Positive thinking and morale – You will need to encourage your team to meet the defined objectives and aims. Think about ways of motivating the group and developing a sense of purpose.
  • Feedback – provide feedback to the group on overall progress in completing the task. Make sure you listen and are consultative; team members will want to know that their input is valued.

Team members/Individuals:

One of a leader’s primary responsibilities.  Too often the best people leave organisations because they believe managers do not value their work, indeed it’s said that “people don’t leave organisations, they leave poor managers”.

  • Listening Skills – understand your team members as individuals, be clear about their personality, skills, needs, career objectives, fears etc. and assist and support them in what they do.  Sometimes, just listening is enough. Find ways of not telling people what, how and when they should do something – don’t be that boss!
  • Tasks and individuals – Understanding the skills of individuals enables a good leader to identify and agree on appropriate individual responsibilities and objectives. People won’t thank you for giving them overly complex tasks that they are not prepared for or, indeed, tasks that are too simple for their skillset.
  • Recognition – give recognition in public to team members. It’s OK to praise individuals and acknowledge their effort and good work. You don’t have to spread it like jam: it’s about recognition of the above and beyond, not the norm.  That way, you make it unique.

Those are just nine of the skills and practices of emerging managers and leaders. They are by no means a complete list – you can find that on John Adair’s website.  But this is already enough to show that it is possible to train and develop leaders; while there is little or no evidence that great leaders and managers achieve their status just by being born.  We owe it to tomorrow’s leaders to give them the best chance of succeeding, and that means assessing their skills, developing their strengths and allowing them to practice, and sometimes fail.

Owen Ashby

Director Strategic Alliances and Engagement – Cognisco Ltd.

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