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The Rubik’s Cube of leadership

The Management Centre

I’ve just finished another coaching session with a depressed CEO. I do lot of coaching for depressed CEOs and other leaders. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good business for my company ( – and for Kleenex. But I feel like an ambulance chaser, surviving on the misery of others. Misery’s a strong word. But many leaders, whether of a whole organisation or just even team, are depressed a lot of the time. Why? Because they feel they’re not living up to some leadership ideal they should fit into.

So much of the time I spend with my coaching customers involves explaining that this ‘ideal’ leadership archetype is a myth. (And as Learning and Development Consultants, =mc run programmes to adjust this perception among participants.)

One part of the myth, for example, is the idea that your job as a leader is to ‘motivate’ staff. The one thing that almost every motivational expert agrees is that you can’t motivate people. You simply try and create a context in which they decide to be motivated. This simple truth, that people are responsible for their own feelings including motivation, has important implications – not least of which is that as a leader you don’t have to spend your whole time trying to ‘inspire’ people and be charismatic. (Though there are techniques to be charismatic and inspire. A topic for another blog?)

Pressure off? Well not quite… the reality is that working out what your colleagues need and want is important. And that can feel like solving a Rubik’s Cube – you adjust one part of the people challenge to discover you’ve ‘unadjusted’ another.

So what are the basic things I advise you should do for all employees to deliver on a realistic leadership role?

Different employees need different things. And there is a skill to identifying these different kinds of stimulus and support. (Maybe yet another blog in that?) Anyway in my management coaching I suggest there are five things you need to do to enable most employees to succeed:

1. Offer autonomy

People want to work on an engaging and stretching projects that offer them maximum scope for freedom to decide and succeed. And that helps them choose to be motivated. Obviously there are practical constraints within this autonomy. But in general you should look to give people the maximum degree of choice over action that you can. Done well this also frees up you to work on your key outputs.

2. Make them accountable

Part of the deal with autonomy is that people accept accountability for results. Holding people to account makes the relationship adult and reciprocal. (There is a right to fail- to try in a systematic way that doesn’t succeed- but not to poor performance.) Accountability also clarifies performance- what works and doesn’t. This clarity is essential for employees who are trying to work out how they can ensure they are seen as successful

3. Clarify roles

People can only be accountable and work autonomously if they know really what their role is. This goes beyond the old-fashioned job description which is really just a list of tasks with of sense of priority. You need to be explicit with staff what their mission or overall purpose is, who they are responsible to, and what the key measures of success are. With this clarity they can act effectively.

4. Offer feedback

One part of the myth is that you have to constantly be on the look for opportunities to praise people. It’s true that everyone wants praise. But at least as important is the more general concept of being recognized. That includes telling someone when they’ve done something right and when they could improve. Effective management coaching motivates employees by highlighting their contributions- not focusing exclusively on positives or negative.

5. Be human

Finally while roles and feedback are important you need to be able to step outside formal settings- boss/employee, supervisor/supervisee. It’s good to take time to relate to people – over a coffee or the water cooler – and ask how they are, ask about their families, find out about their interests. Be prepared to share your own feelings, fears, and frustrations. This makes you human and encourages others to relate to you the same way.

Bernard Ross

=mc Director


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