‘Second-rate’ leadership

What if a person never directly experienced a ‘great’ leader in the course of their career?

In such circumstances wouldn’t it be likely that such a person would use the ‘best’ leader they encountered as their personal benchmark for ‘great’ leadership?

Yet, unknown to them, there is significant headroom beyond that benchmark.

One of the privileges of having had such a long and varied career is that I saw, and continue to see, a number of really exceptional leaders. These people all conduct themselves in very different ways but ultimately they all, without exception, get the people they lead to perform way beyond what they themselves think is possible.

By way of analogy I once worked as a senior leader in two schools. In the first school the quality of school musical and dramatic performance was quite exceptional. Everyone recognised it and it set a benchmark that was constantly being shifted upwards on an annual basis.

On arriving at the second school I was informed that this school also had a great reputation for school musical performances. Parents, staff and the children themselves all repeated this mantra. And then I watched a performance of the school show. Stumbling, ‘amateur’ (in the worst sense of the word), and frankly embarrassing don’t begin to cover it. Yet such was the collective absence of any other standard of performance that everyone was happy.

Of course, the children were doing everything asked of them – the difficulty came from that very fact. Not enough was being asked.

This phenomenon carries over into the world of leadership where people are too frequently content with second-rate leadership simply because they have never experienced anything else.

Great leaders raise personal aspirations beyond the self-limiting vision of what is thought to be possible. There are as many ways to do this as there are leaders but each one of them has an exceptionally determined view that there are no limits to performance.

However, I keep coming across people who have a self-limiting vision of what constitutes ‘great’ leadership. Not only is that damaging for those whom would be led but it places a colossal millstone around the neck of anyone who has aspirations to be a leader themselves.

A significant part of our work at Ceannas, particularly with aspiring senior executive leaders, is to help them remove that millstone and come to appreciate that their own personal benchmark for ‘great’ leadership needs recalibration. By enabling these individuals to recognise that the impact they can have is way beyond what they ever thought possible we create the headroom for improvement that was otherwise missing.

It has been fascinating to observe such leaders create new horizons for their own practice but it is not something that comes without direct challenge, deep examination of one’s own experience, and a willingness to enter previously unexplored territory.

However, the return from such courageous behaviour yields a return that can match or surpass any accumulation of leadership knowledge and techniques.

So ask yourself this question:

“How do I know what great leadership looks like?”

And before you rush to name leaders from history, business, sport or politics remember that our personal benchmarks are established much closer to home. If you struggle to come up with a ‘great’ leader then perhaps, just perhaps, you need to check if there’s an unseen and self-limiting weight around your neck.

“What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate, that you don’t need love when you do or that you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.” Doris Lessing



Escaping Silo Leadership

Over the past year I’ve been working with a Chief Executive Officer who is an exceptional leader. She has kindly given me permission to write about the small behavioural change we have been working on over the past twelve months.

As is ever the case, it was easier to identify the symptoms than than the cause. She had five direct reports and although they were all competent and committed she found herself deeply engaged in aspects of work from each of their particular areas of responsibility.

Her original intention had been to engage with each of them in order to break down the ‘silo mentality’ she had inherited when she was appointed.

However, after eighteen months in post she was still frustrated by a stubborn, yet unspoken, reluctance to proactively engage in cross-silo working. She found her Directors to be really good people but such was their commitment to their own particular remit that they found it almost impossible to break free from their own direct areas of responsibility.

Consequently the CEO found herself being drawn deeper and deeper into the inner workings of each silo – as opposed to her original intention to get them to work together.

In my experience the traditional – and knee jerk – reaction to such a situation is to resort to the ‘tried and tested’ model of restructuring, whereby new services are created and people shifted around and silos broken down. Unfortunately, this takes everyone’s eye off the business, creates distraction and noise; takes people away from tasks that they were very good at, and, most frequently, does nothing to improve cross silo working as they soon re-emerge in their new structures.

The other alternative is often to restructure the top management and look for ways to move people on and replace them with those who are explicitly committed – or so they say – to matrix management. Regrettably this has led to so many very good people being lost to businesses when there might have been an alternative course of action.

In the case in question the CEO was not prepared to countenance a restructure, nor a culling of her leaders – for the reasons already given, i.e. they are very good at their jobs.

One of the tenets of Ceannas is that the only thing that leaders really have influence over, is their own behaviour – and it was in this regard that the marginal leadership gain strategy emerged.

It came about one day as we were going over her organisational chart – she was going over the people and their responsibilities but kept talking about the opportunities that existed between the silos. She started to write – in red pen – the different openings that existed for the organisation if only she could release the potential that existed in her team.

It was at that point that she said something along the lines of: “If only I could spend more time in these spaces” as opposed to down the silos.

So here it was, the idea of a CEO inhabiting the white space in the organisational chart between the silos – as opposed to getting trapped in the day to day-business of what each Director was doing in their own remit.

As is almost always the case on such occasions I thought we had come up something new and original, but a cursory search of the web threw up the fact that quite a number of people had got there before us.

However, much of what had been written about the idea was complex and over-complicated with the white space on the organisational chart becoming cluttered with additional projects, lines of communication and unnecessary detail.

Over a period of time we settled on much simpler mind shift in the CEO’s own behaviour. She set out to concentrate more upon productive work that could be generated in the white spaces between the silos.

In doing so she focused upon reinforcing the organisation’s strategy and vision, and championed productive innovation and change. She also actively challenged the need for cross-silo (matrix) working to be dependent upon innumerable meetings, even more bureaucracy, unclear goals and lack of accountability.

The outcome of this practice has really started to show some benefits: combined working is delivering results; she is identifying talent that she hadn’t seen before; the organisation is responding much more flexibly than it did in the past; and, perhaps most importantly, the senior team are seeing the actual value in collaborating with each others’ services.

From a personal perspective the CEO now feels much more on “top of her job” and feels like she’s adding much more value than when she was mired in the business of each silo.

Of course, all this seems relatively easy to describe but it has been a lot more difficult to achieve. For senior leaders who have been brought up in the orthodoxy of lines of responsibility and chains of command (even if they don’t like using the term) – it is a considerable shift.

Silos make it easier for leaders to hold individuals to account and lend themselves to target setting, scrutiny and control. However, by the CEO focusing more upon the ‘white space’ Directors realise that their own performance will be held to account in that regard – with all the incentives for behaviour modification on their part.

So, on this occasion, a small shift in the CEO’s behaviour characterised by spending more time in the ‘white space” in the organisational chart appears to have had a very positive impact – both upon the individual and the organisation.

I’m not suggesting that it’s the universal panacea – but at the very least CEOs should think about how much time they actively spend occupying the white spaces in their own organisation – and perhaps give it a small nudge if they think it might be productive.

The Downside of ‘Open’ Leadership

‘Open leadership’ is generally understood to be where a leader is open, transparent and authentic. As an alternative to ‘closed’ leadership, i.e. closed and secretive, ‘open leadership’ holds great appeal and is held up a goal to aspire towards for many organisations.

Nevertheless, as with any default leadership behaviour is carries a downside that can be as damaging as its ‘closed’ alternative.

I’ll attempt to explore these through three different stories and conclude with one that ties them all together.

The first of these relates to our youngest son. At the age of 18 he set off to New Zealand to fulfil his childhood dream of playing rugby in ‘All Black’ country.

On his arrival we had frequent Skype calls with him where he shared his feelings of homesickness. After each of these calls we would be worried and these worries would continue through to the next time we spoke to him.

On our next call we would ask him how he was and invariably he would say that he went out the evening of our previous call, made new friends and was feeling good.

My point being that we absorbed his pain, it stayed with us, yet he had moved on very quickly leaving us with the burden.

I know that this is just part of parenthood but it still shows how sharing negative information, no matter how authentically, can generate fears and concerns that are really transient and over which you have no control.

The second story relates to a time when I was a Director of Education. Having been charged with making a £12 million reduction in our total budget I embarked upon a series of roadshows to schools within our area. I presented all of the information, the reasons for the savings, and the alternatives we were exploring.

This exercise was very comprehensive yet on reflection it was an unnecessary, unproductive and, ultimately, damaging exercise.

For when it came to the actual decision to make cuts to budgets the political ramifications were too serious and none of the worst-case scenarios came to pass.

What I learned was that despite the urge to be honest and transparent the ‘open’ leader can generate anxiety and discord when it might have been more astute to hold the information until things were more certain.

The third story concerns a boss I used to work for who shared everything with me about the challenges he faced with his senior colleagues and governing body. On a daily basis he would tell me that he was about to resign, apply for another job, or simply throw everything up in the air.

At the time I had a number of long term strategic tasks to complete that required me to motivate and sustain the confidence of a large number of staff. I understand that my boss trusted me but at the very same time of unburdening himself to me he was undermining my capacity to do my own job to the best of my ability as I feared that everything I was doing was inherently temporary and unstable.

So what have these three stories got in common?

Albeit that each is very different they all centre upon the willingness of the individual to share negative information with others – when the information is anything but certain. The motivation is different in each case: for my son it was an outcome of his own situation far from home; for the sharing of budget data, it was done with the best of intentions; and lastly, my boss just needed to sound off to someone.

The final story that ties these together concerns a Tuesday evening in the Scottish Borders.

It had been a dark, miserable day and anything that could have gone wrong, had gone wrong. I was three months into my first Deputy Headteacher post and the Headteacher had taken ill and was in hospital. So here I was as acting Headteacher dealing with a range of situations that were completely new to me.

After getting through the day I was sitting at my office desk, not quite with my head in my hands – but not far off it – when a teacher knocked on the door and made the mistake of asking how I was.

And so I shared some of my concerns, especially the fact that people just kept ‘dumping’ problems on me – the joys of leadership I hear you say.

However, rather than sympathising with me this wise individual shared a truth which I now hold to be self-evident.

That truth was that leadership occasionally requires you absorb other people’s pain rather than amplifying and passing it on.

He referred me to an ancient principle of leadership, that permeates almost every ancient religion, whereby the leader bares his back and accepts the blows on behalf of those whom he leads (apologies for the gender bias here but ancient religious leaders were almost exclusively of the male variety).

In modern parlance some information – personal, organisational, strategic – is not necessarily something that is appropriate to share. The alternative to the ‘open’ default is to hold the pain internally in order to protect and enable others to properly fulfil their respective roles.

Once again in the dilemma of ‘wise’ leadership the leader has a judgement to make – to be ‘open’ or ‘closed’ on the matter in hand.

Ultimately, the ‘wise’ leader is not trapped by an orthodoxy to always tend to openness and transparency – particularly if the judgement is that the sharing of the news will have a detrimental effect upon other people.

The challenge facing leaders is to escape from the idea of styles of leadership and make appropriate judgements according to context; sometimes ‘closed’ leadership is just the better choice (regardless of how much it seems to go against the grain).

So, the next time you are faced with dealing with a difficult situation – pause a moment; take a breath; consider the options – and perhaps, just perhaps, think about absorbing the pain rather than immediately sliding into the populist trap of sharing the information or how you feel about it.

Finally, every great leader I’ve ever known has someone, somewhere, with whom they can share the burden. It might their life partner; their mentor; or their best friend but to continually pack things away into your own ‘black bag’ without occasionally clearing it out has dangerous implications for one’s health and well-being.


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