September 22


Leadership hack – 010 beware the pendulum of leadership

Most organisations act to magnify the intent of their leaders.  The corporations of the last century, with clear hierarchies and control mechanisms, were designed to ensure that direction issued from the CEO and the board was understood and executed.    While the recent trends of decentralisation and empowerment have gone some way to reduce the role of leaders in setting direction, leaders still exercise considerable influence over the direction of their team and their organisation.

A good, if a small example of the magnifying effect that leaders have is the story of the CEO and the fruit bowl without any bananas.  When this new CEO arrived at the corporate HQ, he was surprised by a generous overflowing fruit bowl that had been laid out for him.  As a joke, he commented ‘What no bananas?’.  Subsequently, in every meeting he went to, and during every visit he made, he was inundated with bananas – they were everywhere.  While having a plentiful supply of bananas is a minor inconvenience at most, this example does demonstrate the power that leaders have, and the need for clear communication.

So what? As a leader, you need to ensure that those that you work with understand your intent (see my post here) and what you are expecting of them (see my post here).  There are several steps you can take to help ensure that the magnifying effect your team and your organisation have, is deliberate:

  1. Be very clear on whether you expect to be followed.  As a leader, it is very easy for you to offer your opinion or advice – for example ‘if I were you, I would …”.  It is also easy to couch your direction in ambiguous language – for example ‘it would be great if…”.  Not being clear on what is advice and what is direction will create a gap between what you expect to happen, and what may happen.
  2. Watch out for off-the-cuff statements.  The banana story is funny, but I have seen numerous examples where a leader has made a comment in jest, or off-the-cuff, which has resulted in confusion, wasted effort and frustration.
  3. Get a read back.  If you always get people to repeat or summarise what is expected of them, it makes it clear that you are expecting someone to follow your direction.  Getting a read back also helps you make sure that you are aligned on what is expected when.
  4. Set limits.  In the Army, I was set ‘limits of exploitation’ beyond which I was not allowed to go without approval.  These limits were useful as it meant that my autonomy was bounded, and I had to go back and report progress.  Limits ensured that I could not unbalance the plan, while also allowing me the opportunity to get guidance or support for further action.

As a leader, even small actions you take can lead to huge changes in your team and organisation.  Like a pendulum, small movements at the top, translate into huge swings at the bottom.  Make sure that the pendulum is moving how you want, rather than