Who Can Help You Be a Great Leader?

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If there is one thing I’ve learned from studying leadership as an academic discipline it’s that leadership is as much an art as it is a science.  It reminds me of my training as a therapist.  When I went to Duquesne University to get my graduate degree in marriage and family therapy, we spent a significant amount of time learning techniques and theories about counseling.  However, you could be the best academic student in the program and still fail miserably as a therapist.  Why?  Because just having head knowledge about how to use numerous therapeutic techniques isn’t enough.  One must apply that knowledge in a way that can’t be explained but rather must be experienced and observed.  It would be like learning to swim from reading an article on the subject and never going into the water.  When I saw my professors work with clients, I could see the things we were taught being used but it was like watching someone paint a portrait.  The artistic nature of what they were doing could be seen when they chose an intervention at just the right time and used it in a way that was beautiful.  Leadership, like counseling, is an art as much as it’s a science.

I’ve noticed that several leaders in organizations I have studied or have done some limited training with don’t understand this very basic concept about leading.  They want an academic like me or a successful consultant to “teach” their people how to be better leaders.  It’s not that consultants and academics can’t help improve someone’s leadership skills, but much of what it means to be a leader comes from constantly being challenged by the situations you’re placed in and evaluating how you did, what worked, and how to do it better.  One must take up the “Craft” of leading as an artist learns to shape the most beautiful table from a hunk of wood found in his or her woodshop.

Now, as I’m writing this, I know several you are saying, “If that’s the case, why should I study leadership or engage consultants to help my organization?”  My answer to you is because it helps.  Leadership consultants and educators are people who have spent a significant amount of time understanding and practicing the craft.  They are the sort of people one might have apprenticed with in the ages past to learn a skill.  Yet, its not just the experience they bring to educating future leaders that matters.  If that were the case, all you need to do is find others who are successful leaders and learn from them.  While that can be tremendously helpful, someone who is a fine leader but doesn’t understand how to convey what they know about leading isn’t very helpful.  My point is good practitioners are not always the best teachers and the best teachers are often lacking in significant leadership practice.  Finally, a good teacher and a good practitioner may not be good researchers who can provide you with a good understanding of what the future will look like and the best way to lead in that future. 

So, what does all this mean for you as someone who wants to improve their leadership skills?  Simply this: don’t just learn from one source, become a master leader by engaging the three streams of leadership wisdom I just mentioned.  Find a good leader who you believe is doing a great job.  Learn from his or her approach to leading.  Appropriate what works for you and your organization and fine tune it.  Learn from some of the best educators in the leadership world.  Find teachers who understand the leadership material and learn from them.  Soak in what they have to say and use it in your leadership efforts.  Finally, read the research.  Read what scholars in the leadership field are saying is going to be important as culture, people, and the context of your industry changes.  These three sources for understanding the practice of leadership are essential and without one of them you find yourself woefully prepared for some aspect of leading.  Good practitioners, excellent teachers, and solid research are the different types of canvases and brushes you will use to paint the portrait of a leader you want to be.

As I said when I started this article, leadership is as much an art as a science.  It’s your job as a leader to create something beautiful.  It’s not just your job, it is your responsibility.  The people that depend on you to do what you do well need someone who isn’t just knowledgeable, but creative.  It’s this creative aspect of leading that allows you to inspire others to be more than a cog in the organizational system.  Your craft reminds people they are connected to a bigger purpose and that their work, and dare I say their life, has meaning and purpose.  Go and create something beautiful, it’s what good leaders do.

Middle Management and the Dark Pit

I just finished reading a book called “It’s Your Ship” by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff.  It’s a great read, particularly for anyone who finds themselves working as a middle manager.  Most people think of middle management in negative terms.  Middle managers are often thought of as people who haven’t been able to achieve executive status. Yet, there are many of us who find middle management a good fit for our gifts and talents.  It’s people like us that are able to “stand in the gap” where executive orders need to be translated into something the average team member can understand and execute in a way that accommodates numerous factors higher-level managers can’t appreciate. As Captain Abrashoff puts it:

“The gray areas, in fact, are one reason we need mid-level managers.  If everything were black and white, organizations would need only chief executives to make the rules and workers to carry them out without questions.  Mid-level managers should be the ones to survey the gray areas and provide direction.”

I want to explore this “gray area” many middle managers function in on a daily basis.  It’s probably one of the most dangerous areas in business one has to navigate and it can make or break how an organization performs.  I was reminded of this perilous space recently while watching a movie called “Grayhound” starring Tom Hanks.  The movie follows a Navy Captain named Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks’ character) and is situated just months after the United States was bombed at Perl Harbor.  Hank’s character is commanding a group of international ships that must cross the Mid-Atlantic Gap also knows as the “Black Pit.”  This area of cross Atlantic travel was exceptionally dangerous because of the number of German U-Boats that harassed ships as they attempted to deliver cargo and men to Europe for the war effort.  In the movie, Hank’s team of international battleships had to protect a convoy carrying troops and supplies to Liverpool England.  The reason this area of trans-Atlantic travel was so dangerous is that the allied forces in Europe and the United States could not provide air support in this stretch of the ocean.  Without air support, the ships were exceptionally vulnerable to submarine attacks by the Germans for at least three days.  As the movie unfolds you see how Hank’s character has to make quick decisions, navigate dangerous water, engage the enemy, and do everything possible to limit the amount of damage the convoy they were protecting sustained.  It is a great movie and it leaves you on the edge of your seat for at least sixty of the ninety minutes you watch.  More importantly, it reminds you of how important it is to have solid people working in the “gray area” of life.

This movie works as a great metaphor for describing the life of middle managers.  The mission created by the executive team is clear when understood in the pristine world of a boardroom or conference room.  I’m not implying executive leadership is naive or unaware that this gray area exists, rather I’m saying no one at that stage of strategic development could possibly account for the numerous ways things need to happen for the objective to be reached.  Middle management’s job is to protect the “convoy” and make sure it arrives in Liverpool England with as little damage as possible.  Middle managers are familiar with receiving these types of orders.  It may not be as sexy as protecting a convoy of ships, but it may be just as important.  The order you receive will most likely sound more like, “We need to cut production costs by 10% but still provide a quality product to our customers with as little damage to our customer satisfaction ratings as possible.”  Middle managers need to make that directive work while continuing to keep their team members motivated, the production line flowing, and handle any issues that pop up.  It’s this gray area that makes people in middle management thrive.  Middle managers must be comfortable with ambiguity, demonstrate moral courage to do what needs to be done when what needs to be done isn’t easily identified, and take the heat when things don’t go well.  You can’t be a coward if you’re going to survive as a middle manager.

Over the next few weeks, I want to spend some time digging into the characteristics and skills necessary for functioning well in the middle level of any organization.  Perhaps you’re like me and find that part of the organization’s structure a place that challenges you in a positive way.  Maybe you’re like Captain Krause in charge of the battleship known as “Grayhound” and you’re willing to bravely go where there is little air cover yet the opportunity to do something good for a greater purpose is ready for a person like you to take command.  If so, you’re in the right spot because together, we can explore what it takes to be a successful middle manager.  I look forward to going into the “dark pit” with you over the next couple of weeks.