In parts 1 and 2 of this series of blogs, I discussed the need for leaders to engage with their people, and to have a realisable vision of the future by being what I called a ‘time traveller’. They need to be able both to lead people and to deliver. This time I’d like to think about the metrics for leadership. How do we recognise the great leader when we encounter them? How do leaders know whether they’re succeeding?
There is one clear-cut metric: are they any good?
I said in my first blog on this subject that not everyone in a leadership position is actually a leader. There are people who’ve been swept to the top on the tide of a career. Reassuringly, of course, there are also many examples of people who are round leadership pegs in round leadership holes.
Asking the question ‘are they any good?’ is obviously more likely to get a thumbs up for the latter than the former. But of course there’s more to it than that.
You might get a ‘yes’ in terms of delivery, but a ‘no’ for how they lead people. The extreme version is the bully, sometimes (wrongly) tolerated because they produce the goods even as they alienate most of their people. Whatever they’re achieving leaves a trail of destruction, with likely long-term impact. Nevertheless, the emphasis on delivery is one explanation for why so much bullying continues to exist in organisations despite everyone knowing how counterproductive it is.
Conversely, the ‘are they any good?’ question might get a ‘yes’ for people leadership, and a ‘no’ for delivery. The leader could be hugely empathetic, pleasant to deal with, motivating – but not particularly good at getting things done. For such a leader survival depends on having a talented, well-motivated team working for them, but that’s problematic if that team finds their leader to be a decisional bottleneck.
The great leader is of course getting a ‘yes’ to the ‘are they any good?’ question because they get a ‘yes’ on both people leadership and delivery.
Still hard to measure, though. You can just know, but instincts can sometimes mislead, particularly without the benefit of hindsight. This is particularly risky for those looking down the chain and deciding who to promote. There’s the ‘good chap’ syndrome, where people who smile upwards get promoted and thereby drive the Peter Principle: the promotion of people to their ‘level of incompetence’. (The sexist nature of that term – ‘good chap’ – isn’t an accident, by the way, in a society where men still predominate in leadership roles).
I think there’s a simple test by which to measure the effectiveness of leaders: what will people be saying about them in five years’ time? What will their reputation be, and how will it have survived the test of time? Reputation can be plotted on a notional graph in which the axes are leadership of people and of delivery respectively.
The coordinates on this graph reflect leaders’ personal and professional qualities. Were they effective? What kind of legacy did they leave? Did they change things for the better? Were they a flash in the pan, or is the effect still felt? Was it good to work for them? Did they inspire their people? Did they learn from them? Did the leader help their people become more effective leaders themselves?
The great leader is going to be characterised by words like ‘inspirational’ by those who know them. Likely not by the term ‘careerist’ – someone whose focus on the greasy pole makes it unlikely they’ll be a great leader.
Much better for a career to be a succession of opportunities to offer skills at the next level, for the greater good. There’s more chance of abrogating the Peter Principle that way. Of course everyone wants a bit more money and maybe status, and there’s no harm in a bit of ambition, but being sufficiently self-aware to assess how your ability matches your position is a great asset for the developing leader.
You could argue that this metric – assessing someone’s reputation in the future – is of less use in the here and now, but you can observe a leader in action today and project what their future reputation might be. It’s another version of time travel. And for leaders themselves, thinking about their future reputation should shape how they behave and perform – how they iron out the shortcomings and bolster the strengths.
I’m not saying any of this is easy. Some people in leadership positions put up a smokescreen, a projection of confidence when the real issue is competence. That’s why it’s so important to see beyond how individuals present, and into what they actually do.
And to conclude this triptych of leadership blogs, let’s just move from theory into practice, and transport ourselves back into the real world of leadership for a moment.
In organisations, it is of course as complicated as the number that exist. Many have good leadership cultures, many not. Those that actively engage with the issue are much more likely to succeed. Those that don’t are likely already to have poor leadership, and to replicate the failing.
Over in the political sphere, everyone has an opinion on whether a particular leadership cadre has been effective or not. Reaching a conclusion requires us to set aside political leanings and assess the hard data. We should look beyond the day-to-day tidal wave of reporting and commentary, and ask ourselves whether we’re well-served by political leaders of character, who are effective in getting things done (in the interests of the people they serve), and whose reputation will stand the test of time.
And if the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then we should look to build a leadership cadre for the future for whom the answer is, instead, a resounding ‘yes’.