Managing the dualities of leadership

The illusion of leadership being ‘feet up on the desk get others to do the work’ is swiftly shattered when you’ve sat in that venerated chair for more than a few months. The stark and often overwhelming reality is the job of leadership is complex and demanding. The multiplicity of imperatives a leaders must address daily is immense. What makes it even tougher is they are often conflicting, never clear cut, and usually equally important. This inherent duality requires leaders to be deliberate and selective in how, where and when they spend their time and energy.

What are these frictions? How can leaders manage them better?

In our substantial time spent with leaders we’ve found 3 core dualities they face. Learning to address and serve both side of these frictions well is critical to their success.

1. The Now and the New

Delivering the targets of the current budget cycle is a non-negotiable expectation of leadership. Investors, stakeholders, employees and clients rely on leadership to achieve this. Not surprisingly then driving results delivery ‘now’ absorbs a lot of the energy and focus of leaders. 

But it’s not enough. Leaders also need to be imagining and articulating the ‘new’. Defining the business they are building for an uncertain future 3 – 5 years from now. Identifying the forces that will shape it and determining the strategies that must be implemented to achieve it. The faster the world changes around us the more time and effort it takes to ensure the ‘new’ is relevant, competitive and achievable. 

Balancing the ‘now’ and the ‘new’ takes vastly different skill sets and both require substantial bandwidth from the leader. Leaders need to make sure they are carving out specific and focused time to be successfully doing both. Without this, the immediacy of the ‘now’ will overwhelm the ‘new’ and, like the Titanic, the business will simply hit the iceberg harder and faster and sink better. 

2. The Executive and Functional Teams

Every leader naturally belongs to multiple teams, but two primary teams vie for their attention. The team they lead ‘their Functional Team’ and the team they are a member of ‘their Executive Team’. 

It is essential to answer this pertinent question: “Which is their first team?”. Which team licenses their involvement in all other teams and mandates their role and contribution on these teams? The answer should be the Executive Team. This is the team that sets the organisation’s strategy, allocates resources, protects the business’s reputation and sets the agenda of all other teams. The Functional Team only exists because the Executive Team deems it necessary to deliver the company’s objectives. Therefore, the Executive Team must receive the majority of the leader’s energy, attention and expertise.

However, leaders tend to be drawn to spend more time in their Functional teams. This is where they enjoy positional power and have the most experience and knowledge. It is comfortable and in their direct control. In comparison, the Executive Team issues are more diverse and more complex. Often there are areas the leader is unfamiliar with and inexperienced in, making this team more challenging and less comfortable. The result of the tendency to default to the Functional Team is the emergence of silo thinking and internal competition, behaviours which can profoundly undermine the success of an organisation. 

To get the balance right, leaders must embrace their discomfort and be ruthless in creating time and energy for their Executive Team. This requires them to overcome their own need for control and actively delegate accountability to their Functional Team. This can only be done effectively if their team is empowered and equipped to rise to the challenge. Leaders will know they have succeeded when their functional teams operate better without them there!

3. The Smart and the Healthy

Enduringly competitive organisations are simultaneously ‘Smart’ and ‘Healthy’. Smart means that the operational fundamentals are in place and working well. Robust systems and processes, great products, good cash flow and useful data are examples of this. Without this in place the business will suffer, customers will be disappointed and the competition will celebrate.

But things will go wrong on the smart side and this is when a healthy business excels. A healthy culture allows your most vital asset, your people, to operate at their best. Without the distraction of politics, silos and confusion, they can unleash their full creativity and productive to drive, fix and improve the business.

Leaders tend to be consumed by dealing with the Smarts. They are more tangible and more visible and leaders often feel better equipped and experienced to deal with them. The trouble is that if the leaders are not tending to the healthy side, then who is? Dysfunction and toxicity in the human eco system is much harder to detect and when it takes hold, even harder to cure. It is the leaders job to cultivate and protect the organisations health.  

Getting this right is surprisingly simple. What it takes is spending time with people. Less time behind a desk and more time understanding what people are thinking, feeling and doing. This way leaders can provide what people need to be more effective, productive and motivated. Enabling them to tend to the Smarts, while the leader focuses on developing the Health. 

Leadership Lessons

Balancing the demands of the three leadership dualities consistently well is difficult. Time and energy are scare resources, so it is imperative that leaders are deliberate in their efforts to manage them. We’ve found these techniques to be helpful in creating time and bandwidth for leaders to properly wrestle with them. 

  • Build a Cohesive Executive Team: Strong relationships built on trust and tight alignment at the executive level sets the culture and tone for the whole organisation, promoting good team work throughout. It provides an essential and constructive forum for the executives to grapple with the dualities together.  
  • Provide Clarity and Focus: Articulate a clear, simple and compelling ambition and direction for the organisation. This provides a framework within which people can take accountability, make decisions and drive delivery, raising the capability and performance of the whole organisation. 
  • Delegate, Delegate, Delegate: Actively enabling your teams to take on more responsibility is critical. Focused and empowered people who are able to grow and are valued are an enviable competitive advantage. By stepping up, they release time for leaders to their job better. Delegation without support is an abdication of duty, so leaders must prioritise regular performance discussion to keep their teams on track and motivated. 
  • Master the Art of Meetings: Meetings are an undervalued resource is the executive toolbox. Most leaders complain of meeting fatigue, but engaging with each other and your teams is the heartbeat of leadership. Be disciplined with clear agendas and defined objectives. Meet more often for less time to address specific issues and avoid wasting precious time. Highlight in the agenda which issues pertain to ‘now vs new’ or ‘smart vs healthy’ as it helps focus the mind, direct the conversations and ensure appropriate allocation of time. 
  • Take Stock Regularly: Effective change starts with awareness, followed by deliberate practice and supported by proactive feedback. Make a point of regularly reflecting personally, and as an executive team, on how well you are doing at managing the 3 dualities. Then make changes to improve. Repeat often!

Our work with executive teams provides a simple framework and a rich toolkit to raise your impact and effectiveness. Contact us to hear more about how our approach can help you and your business

For further information or support, please feel free to email us or make use of our contact us form..

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