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Thought Leadership

01.26.2021

Re-defining the Management Process: A Gateway to Inspired Leadership

Managing the Workload

In my work as an Executive Coach, one of the themes that regularly comes up in my client sessions is the frustration leaders experience when seemingly trivial things aren’t getting done to their satisfaction.  All too often, the consequence of this frustration is that the leader will resort to positional authority in order to exert some direct control over the situation and get things back on track.  Very few of my clients like it when I tell them that in behaving this way, that they have actually forsaken leadership and moved through management and into direct supervision. Invariably after they have calmed down, they ask me “Well what am I supposed to do, this stuff has to get done?”  It’s a great question. 

The first point I feel that is worth making here is that supervision, or the act of taking direct control over the work output of another in terms of what gets done, when it gets done, how it gets done and so on, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  There are definitely times, typically during urgent, crisis or emergency situations for example, when supervision is fundamentally the optimum mode for a leader to use.  Or as I like to say, “If your house is on fire, it may not be the right time to convene a committee”. Direct control and the use of positional authority when the stakes are high and the timing critical is a valuable approach for any leader to have in his or her leadership tool kit. 

With many leaders apparently using the supervisory mode more often than is perhaps ideal, one is left to ask, “Is everything at your place of work or indeed under your area of accountability in a constant state of crisis or emergency?”  I am very used to hearing from my clients that “It sure seems that way”.  Because of the nature and pace of business these days, it can very much feel like a leader is required to jump from crisis to crisis, being decisive, taking action and getting things done. However, this can be exhausting and unless change is initiated, an indefinite process – at least until burnout occurs.  While it might be nice to embrace a more inspired leadership model right away, often our business environment will preclude that direct step so let’s take a quick look at the intermediate step, namely, management. 

Plan-Do-Review-Adapt

For the purposes of this article, I invite the reader to consider management as a simple process of “Plan-Do-Review-Adapt”.  Whether it is project management, performance management or any other sort of management structure, they all tend to follow some version of this very simple process. The nuance associated with management comes with its implementation.   

The supervisor’s version of management may very well be to tell his or her subordinates what the plan is, demand that they execute the plan immediately, check-in on their performance (using key performance indicators) on a regular basis and then tell them what to do if the observed performance is trending off the plan.  Let’s call this form of management, “Supervisory Management” because it still requires an enormous amount of oversight and control by the leader. It might be a step beyond the direct supervision mode discussed earlier but it is a fairly minor difference. 

At the other end of the management spectrum exists a more empowering manager or “Leadership Oriented Manager”.  In this case, the leader may ask his or her subordinates to participate in, if not take complete accountability for, defining the success of what is being undertaken, coming up with the plan for achieving that success, setting up a routine progress review and then asking what adaptations need to made in order to close any performance gaps noted during the review. 

Leadership Oriented Management allows for a significant reduction in “direct control” and rarely is positional authority required to ensure success. 

Gordon Aker

There are few things worth noticing about this “Leadership Oriented Management”. First of all, the leader is no longer assuming the role of “taskmaster” but rather one of “process facilitator”. As a consequence, the time, energy, oversight and interventions required by the leader are greatly diminished.  It is also not an abdication of leadership accountability. As the management process facilitator, the leader retains accountability for ensuring that the definition of success is reasonable, appropriate and aligned with the organizational needs.  The leader is also accountable for ensuring that the individuals executing the work are in fact collaborating and working in an efficient and effective manner. Finally, the leader demonstrates both care and interest by regularly “auditing” the management process (and the results) to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are being honoured.  Leadership Oriented Management allows for a significant reduction in “direct control” and rarely is positional authority required to ensure success. 

However, the ultimate mode of leadership must be considered to be that of “Inspired Leadership”.  Inspired Leadership is essentially accomplishing work through both passive (being) and active (doing) influence.  The “being” element of this influences essentially represents the values, aspirations, intention, integrity and character of the leader in question. As the inspiring leader consistently represents him or herself, others will be inspired to act in accordance with their understanding of that leader’s character elements – without any intervention by the leader whatsoever. 

Inspired Leadership

The doing element of “Inspired Leadership” flows from the leader’s ability to create a compelling vision of a desired future state, orchestrate, coordinate and marshal the necessary resources to achieve that future state and link every individual’s contribution into a collective undertaking required to achieve that desired future state.  It is also worth noting that this needs to be done and communicated on a regular and consistent basis to be effective. 

Often my clients ask me how they will know when they are acting and leading at this level.  I have found that the biggest indication that a leader is operating at the Inspired Leadership level is that subordinates will initiate, plan, execute and report on work that was not requested by the leader but rather was inspired by the leader’s direction, values and belief systems.   

When I worked in industry, I had an employee approach me to let me know that he had fired a subcontractor from working at the facility.  I asked him for some additional details, and he said, “Those people were not following our safety protocols and I know how much safety means to you and the leadership team, so I decided to act because I know that is what you would have wanted”.  And he of course was correct.  As the leader, I did not have to initiate an action let alone intervene – it was all done without my even knowing that there was an issue in the first place. The amount of leadership control in this situation was effectively zero and the outcome was as if I had acted myself. 

So how does a leader move away from the need to control and into Inspired Leadership?  I believe the first thing is to reset the time frame.  As discussed earlier, emergency situations often are best addressed with direct supervision.  Extending the time horizon on situations will give leaders the opportunity to engage in the management process with the desired outcome of preventing many emergency situations from happening in the first place.  As Leadership Oriented Management practices start to become the cultural norm, the leader will often find time to work on developing their capacity for Inspired Leadership.  Here are two readily accessible opportunities for developing that capacity. 

The first is to connect the work being done to a human-centric dream.  People are often inspired by knowing that, “what they do” actually matters to other people. You may start by asking yourself “How does what I (and those that work for me) do, matter and to whom?” Spend some time connecting with how what you do impacts the lives of others in a beneficial way and see if you can find a compelling source of inspiration for yourself and others. Simon Sinek’s book, “Start With Why”1 is an excellent and in-depth look at identifying the passion and reason for that human-centric dream. 

The second opportunity for leaders to spend more time acting from a place of “Inspired Leadership” is very personal.  It is in fact to know themselves well, accept themselves for who they are, be themselves in a consistent and authentic manner and continue to grow themselves to the fullest of their potential.  Of course, this is not easily done, not only because of our insecurities but also because we are always changing.  I often tell my clients that discovering who they are will be a lifelong effort!  Also, our cultural environment can play a huge role in this as well because of certain beliefs and biases as to what leadership is and how a leader should behave, look, act and be. Working with a Professional Coach can be a powerful means of understanding who you are as an authentic leader and more importantly, as an Inspiring Leader. 

The benefit of forsaking the tangibility of control for the ambiguity of inspired leadership is quite simply the scaling of your influence and impact.  Inspired leadership enables a far greater span of influence than any effort requiring direct control would ever allow, so the question becomes what are you up for?  How big a role are you willing to take on to make your biggest and best contribution to the world?