28 March, 2017

Leading People – Like your life depended on it

Leading People – Like your life depended on it

Photo Credit: DG EMPL

How do you survive as a leader in today’s competitive world, where everyone is claiming to be an expert in some thing or another? My answer – be a great generalist leader.

Often, we look to the military for case studies of great leaders. In the military, great leadership is not only required, but demanded, where, quite literally, lives are depending on it. Great leadership is required so that others will follow you into situations of grave danger, where outsiders would say, ‘Why did you do that?’

The Generalist

Those who are under the influence of a great leader know that it is about trust, respect and knowing that the leader is watching out for you, despite the dangers, so why wouldn’t you do it?

This ability to lead people into situations of grave danger, with no foreseeable personal gain, goes much against human nature. But even more remarkable, is that, in the military, many of the great leaders are not subject matter experts.

Let me explain. When I was in the military, I led teams of carpenters, plumbers and electricians – but I didn’t have a trade. I led a team disposing of bombs in Lebanon, but I wasn’t an Explosive Ordinance Disposal operator. I had people who could drive diggers, dozers and graders in Afghanistan – but I wasn’t allowed near the controls! I was there as a generalist leader, rather than a specialist leader.

In the military, often the leaders are ones that don’t have all the knowledge or experience. In fact, as a young leader, you are leading soldiers who have years more experience than you do. So, what qualification and right do you have, as a young military leader, to lead others who can do the specialist job much better than you?

Three Areas of Excellence

Well there are three areas in which military officers need to be excellent:

  • The requirement and ability to build relationships and a cohesive team;
  • The ability to project manage in a complex environment;
  • The ability to think and act strategically across a multi-level organisation.

What does this mean for leaders in every organisation wanting to achieve team cohesion and success? What can we learn from the military in this case of leading people?

I believe that there are three areas that matter, no matter what organisation or team you are leading, in any industry, in order to become a great generalist leader.

1. Relationships matter

Of the two types of leaders, (generalists and specialists), most leaders are generalists, particularly at the mid to highest levels or every organisation.

The specialist leader is usually found in smaller teams, where they are the subject matter expert and required to lead a specialist team as part of a larger organisation. As a specialist leader, you are focused largely on facts to deliver an outcome. You make sure the job is being done to your standard, and it is your standard that is being relied on to be delivered.

Those in generalist leadership positions most likely have a team that supports the work of the organisation, each person having specialist skills that are needed to deliver an outcome. The generalist leader of that team cannot be expected to know every specialisation and what the answer is to each problem.

As a generalist leader, you are relying on your specialists to deliver. You are relying on your relationship with each person to ensure they are delivering to the highest standard.

Leadership Focus

As a leader, you need to focus on building the relationships with those in your team. This face-to-face relationship building and knowing the individual is more important than you knowing the ins and outs of the specialist skills at this time.

You must have faith in your recruitment process; that you have chosen the right person for the job. If you find yourself doubting this, then the fault is not in front of you, it is in your HR and recruiting process.

It is this building of trust, respect and understanding at the individual level that makes the next steps more effective.

2. Delegate and enable

Unless you are a one-person band, then, as a leader, you are going to be more effective in understanding what you can delegate.

As a generalist leader, you need to delegate to your specialists to get the work done – you physically don’t have the skills required to do the job. As a specialist leader, if you end up doing all the work, then those you are leading will feel that you don’t trust them and they will lose respect for you as their leader.

Delegate tasks. It is not a way of getting out of work, which many young leaders feel, but a way of empowering your staff.

The more important role for you as a leader is to enable the environment for the work to begin. Spend time with your staff (again building relationships), knowing where the roadblocks are, what challenges they are facing and where their knowledge gaps are.

If you can effectively remove roadblocks and enable them to be successful, then they will be more likely to come to you with problems in the future, rather than hiding them from you.

Problems are good, crises are bad.

Leadership Focus

Be active in talking with your team, understand their workloads and roadblocks and manage this accordingly. The leadership is in being able to think strategically and ensure roadblocks don’t become problems, any problems are shared and crises are avoided.

3. Big picture vs small details

The generalist leader is often thinking about the bigger picture and how their specialist teams fit into the larger vision. The specialist leader is often focused on their area of expertise, with some understanding of the bigger picture.

Both are important, but it requires a generalist leader to have the time and thinking space to ensure the ‘big picture’ vision is being achieved, rather than getting lost in small details. This can only occur if a leader is delegating appropriately.

Leadership Focus

You should be able to understand the strategic intent of your leader two levels up and, likewise, those you are leading should be able to understand the strategic intent two levels up from them. This ensures that everyone is aligned in their purpose and reduces the likelihood of operating in specialist silos.

Into Practice 

The role of a great leader is to create other leaders. So, as a generalist leader, your role is no longer to be a subject matter expert in a certain trade, but rather be a subject matter expert on developing people.

You know how to judge a great leader? By what their team says and does, not only in their presence, but also when they have left the room!  

© 2019 Paul Mead