Leadership is often best Understood when it is absent

Phil Eastman International Speaker, Author and Advisor | January, 2013


Leadership matters – were my immediate uttered words after listening a story about an organization’s employee engagement levels. I was teaching in Europe and Andre was my driver from the airport to the conference venue. As we talked (Andre talked and I listened), we agreed that the style and capability of a leader is detectable on the faces and in the hearts of employees. Andre comes in contact with many people from several organizations in his line of work. He shared how he learned to discern the quality of leadership in any organization by how it reflects in the attitudes and actions of employees. He said, “When employees are good, it means the boss is good and when the employees are bad, it means the boss is bad.” Although I could have argued that his conclusion was too simplistic, I could not argue the validity of the overarching theme. I wrapped up our discussion by concurring and summarizing his point responding, “Leadership matters.”
Leadership is the driving force in every organization. It is leadership that sets and steers the directional path. It is leadership that aligns resources toward collective goals. Solid leadership is responsible for the execution of objectives and actions that make goal accomplishment possible. It is leadership, as Andre so ably concluded, that influences an employee’s approach and attitude toward the work they undertake. In addition, leadership matters because people like to lead. People instinctively respond to leadership that sets direction, establishes goals and facilitates successful execution. They follow well when those three are done in an environment that brings out the best in everyone. Since leadership matters, we view everything offered to our clients from a leadership perspective. Our focus on optimizing individual and organizational leadership capabilities inspired us to create Dimensional Strategy; a model for helping leaders set direction, aligns resources and execute plans.
Strategic planning is a classic organizational capability. It developed over the past seventy-five years into a robust science, and in that development failed to emphasize its most essential aspect – leadership. That is the reason we combined our collective understanding of strategy development into a simple yet powerful model that seeks to restore leaders’ responsibility for building and executing a strategic plan. Leadership is the essential thread that binds an organization together. Understanding, embracing and the ability to weave that thread must be the goal of every leader. The importance of leadership is evident, leading me to wonder why more leaders are not actively engaged in developing their own leadership capabilities because leadership matters.
The answer to that query came clearly into focus after a recent experience where I was asked to provide a proposal and outline for the creation of a leadership development program. This is the type of work we do routinely, and as such is focused more on the process we use to develop the program than on the value the program adds to the organization. I shared the proposal with my contact, a senior level leader in the organization, and within hours received a response wherein the CEO asked candidly what the organization would “get” for its investment of time and money in developing its leadership ability. It was a great question for which I did not have an immediate answer. I lacked that immediate answer because leadership is often best understood when it is absent. That is to say, it is easier to see the absence of leadership capability than to sense its presence. For that reason, the question might be better posed, “What is our current level of leadership ability costing us?” 
The answer to that question is implicit in what Andre said as he lamented the quality of leadership in the organization he is familiar with. He could see the lack of leadership in the employees’ attitudes and work. In fact, based on his observations, he is likely capable of seeing this concept from that angle – the lack rather than the acquired leadership’s affect. 
It seems that a thoughtful leader, palpably aware of the importance of developmental leadership, might be best served by the insights of those he or she leads. 
Each of these recent experiences reminded me that the quest to improve an organization’s leadership ability requires a leap of faith. There is no proof that improving leadership ability produces an immediate return on that investment. Effective investment in leadership requires a fundamental belief that leadership matters. When we conduct our Leadership Accelerator program, participants engage in a variety of outdoor ropes course adventures. One of those is a “leap of faith.” During this exercise, each individual is required to climb a fifty-foot telephone pole, stand on top of the pole and leap to retrieve a rubber chicken placed just outside their reach. The faith part of this activity is of course trusting the stability of the rope and harness that hold them. Even though we can prove that the harness will hold when they leap, natural human instinct tells them it will not, and they should climb back down. It is not until each person completes the exercise that they realize the risk is not necessarily in the leap. The risk is in deciding whether to climb the pole in the first place.
For the CEO who wondered what he would “get” from climbing the leadership development pole, my question is, “What is it costing you now to avoid the pole altogether?”