Leadership: why being a good boss is damned hard work

By Chas Savage

Thursday September 25, 2014

Leading a team — even in good times — is no easy task. Damn it, staff are funny that way — reluctant to play the role of pawns to be directed, manipulated and sacrificed as required.

In challenging times, when the stakes and pressure are higher, leaders come into their own. Leadership is not just management. It’s the art of reconfiguring reality to create something different, better, brighter. Different programs. Better teams. A brighter day.

But how exactly?

Well, first up, remember that leadership implies purpose and direction. Be clear about where you and your team are going, about how you’re going to get there together. Don’t keep this plan to yourself. Clearly communicate this to your team.

The second concern follows from the first. Focus on your identified priorities. Don’t be caught up in minutae and irrelevant distractions. Clearly communicate this to your team.

Third, as a leader you are watched as well as obeyed (or disobeyed). How you behave must be perfectly aligned with what you say. First on deck; last off duty; positive; courageous; calm; available; accessible; visible. What you do in your work and how you carry yourself during the day defines you in the eyes of your team and creates the model that staff will strive to emulate.

Fourth, give feedback, both positive and negative, often. Praise rarely. Never criticise. Feedback sets your staff up to do better next time. Feedback is tough-minded, fair, constructive and timely. Criticism in particular provides no ground to do better next time.

“Acquired Helplessness Syndrome is not a recognised medical condition but rather describes workplace dysfunction.”

Fifth, the fact that you can do each task or job better than each and every member of the team is no reason why you should do that work. Acquired Helplessness Syndrome is not a recognised medical condition but rather describes workplace dysfunction. It’s the product of a leadership style that releases staff from the responsibility of completing tasks to the required high standard.

Sixth, define explicit standards of performance. Having a joint understanding creates a team culture and makes the management and direction of individuals relatively straightforward.

Seventh, support your staff in meeting these standards. The expectation of improved performance must be backed by solicitous concern and care. What skills do staff need to perform well? What resources must they have? What training must they receive?

Finally, allow people to make mistakes — but only if they subsequently learn and improve!

Napoleon Bonaparte once said — perhaps when he wasn’t plundering Europe — “a leader is a dealer in hope”. It’s an insight that goes to the most important quality of leadership in difficult times, which is to breathe confidence into staff and provide them with the self-belief that their work has a positive purpose and acknowledged value.

And that sometimes is damned hard work.

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