By Dr. Anton Verwey
Over the past few months I have had the privilege of working with a small family owned business on what is effectively a business rescue and turnaround journey. Over and above the more “technical” aspects that need to be addressed, such as standardisation of business processes, introduction of fit-for-purpose technologies, clarity and focus on market and customer segmentation, we also focused on aspects such as leadership and culture. Specifically, we asked (and tried to answer) the questions about the type of leadership and culture that will be required for the business to become and remain sustainably competitive.
There is no doubt that in large part the current crisis they find themselves in is a function of the failure of leadership. While much of the conversations focused on the need for an individual to “step up” to own and lead the change required, it was also necessary to go through the very painful process of removing some of the existing leadership. As much therefore as we talk about “walk the talk” and “leading from the front”, I suppose it is equally important to understand the risks associated with leading from the front. I can think of at least the following:
- The leader may move so far ahead that she / he loses connection with the rest of the organisation;
- Some people in the organisation may simply not have the capability to change at the rate required; or
- The leader may move so slowly that they become a hindrance to the rest of the organisation.
At an individual level, of course, this requires real insight and mindfulness, as well as the courage to take the actions required. Seen from another perspective, it may be very useful to think of leadership as a community of leadership, rather than the individual leader per se.
For some reason, this train of thought made me reflect on a visit my wife and I made to a sheep farm in Wales a few years ago. If we assume the following:
- The person guiding the pack of dogs with his whistles is the client;
- The sheep are all the things we do to meet the client requirement;
- The pen is the end state the client wants from us (except of course that it rarely remains fixed!); then
- The dogs must be the community of leaders at all levels guiding our activities towards the client objective.
What quickly becomes clear when looking at the dogs (the leadership community) is that they are all very clear on the objective. Each one understands (and executes) their role. What may be less obvious, is that there is one dog constantly running behind the others as “cover”. In factories, people who are able to stand in on short notice for anybody else somewhere on the production line are referred to as “butterflies”, and this dog behaves in a very similar fashion,
The issue is therefore not one of the leader “leading from the front” but one of guiding and supporting leaders at all levels to remain focused on their contribution to the end goal. Never run too far ahead (you will create gaps) and never come in the way of the other dogs (leaders).
In all of this, as a community of leaders, we need to be focused on the client objective, and to ensure that all of our actions (the sheep) are focused on the end state. In the final analysis, this is what matters most – did we as a community of leaders add value to the client system. Leadership can NEVER be about ourselves.