Leadership : Transforming the Harried Leader into a Gifted One

Daniel D. Elash, Ph.D. - Dan is the principal of Syntient and carries a Doctoral Degree in Psychology from the University of Kansas. His consultant expertise includes enhancing organizational capability through collaboration and facilitating change at the individual, team and organizational levels. He is a speaker and teacher who places strong emphasis on developing social innovation in client organizations.

Dan's consulting client base is diverse, including industrial, retail, financial and service companies. He uses communication and community building as fundamental platforms for generating and sustaining personal and organizational capability. E-mail: delash@syntient.com and visit www.syntient.com.


Too many of today’s business leaders are buried in the day-to-day work of their companies.  More than that, they wear their harried circumstances like a badge of honor.  Phone messages accumulate; they run from one meeting to another in a never-ending stream of ineffective conclaves; their desks are piled high with papers, magazines and documents demanding their attention; minions await decisions or directions.  The harried leader proudly staggers under the load.

All of this can feel quite affirming.  You’ve got to be working hard if you’re that busy.  You’ve got to be an extremely important person to be so central to every thought and every action taken by the corporation.  You’re bound to be setting a great example for the rest of the workforce.  Aren’t you?

The simple answer is no, you’re not.   A leader mired in the circumstances described above isn’t to be emulated.  He or she is failing as a leader in any number of ways.  It is guaranteed that the more you act as a doer of the work you are not acting as a leader of others.  You are, unarguably, doing the work others are charged with doing.  At the same time, you will have little time to spend on doing the work that only the leader can do, so no one is tending to that.  When being overloaded turns in to a pattern of being harried, a leader loses the requisite nimbleness to create organizational capability.

What’s worse, slipping into the role of the harried leader is addictive.  The less one trusts the thinking of others, the less one trusts the execution done by others, the less one trusts the judgment of others, and the less one uses the demands of the work to develop others, the fewer options exist for working any other way over time.  These leaders are continually reinforcing their self-perception of indispensability.   The more they believe it the deeper they are mired in the details that others are paid to handle.

The Importance Of Perspective

How you see your role determines how you’ll act in order to fulfill it.  I want to consider three perspectives that are common among leaders in business and industry.  These are:

• Bossing
• Telling
• Leading

Bossing:  If you define yourself as the boss of the organization, you’re saying that you are the thinker in the organization.  You’ll tend to hold decision-making authority close to yourself.  You’ll train your people to wait for your directions and permissions.  You’ll set yourself up as being the owner of the company’s results, simultaneously dissuading others from taking ownership in them.    Ultimately, you are saying that you trust no one else.  More and more of the day-to-day work will aggregate to you.  You will become harried.

Telling:  If you define yourself as the teller for the rest of the organization, you’re saying that you are the keeper of the company’s vision.  Like the high priest interpreting the signs and auguries, only you can see to the heart of the business mysteries.  Telling people what to do has the feel of empowering them.  However, when they fail to see the complex whole from their functional perspectives, issues will eventually surface that only you can address.  Ultimately, you’re saying that you need to keep the business idea as your sole province.  More and more of the decision-making will come to you by default.  You will become overloaded with the demands of doing the company’s thinking.  

Leading:  If you define yourself as the leader, you are saying that it is your role to facilitate the organization going from where it is today to where it needs to go.  In this scenario, your role is to use all of the potential of the organization to maximize the company’s performance.  In this arrangement, you must spend your time looking outward, into the marketplace, at the customers’ situations, and across functional and organizational boundaries.  You are also assuming responsibility for looking ahead, beyond the day-to-day work in anticipation of what the company will face in the future.  Ultimately, you are saying that you can only be successful by supporting the best work of others.  More and more of the execution of the company’s work will be pushed to others.  You stay unencumbered by relying on the resources of the entire company to get things done.

How you define your role as the leader determines how you conceive of the roles of the other people in the organization.  Your definitions set your expectations.  Your expectations create the mental framework you use in setting priorities and framing options.  Your definitions establish the culture of the enterprise.

An Illustration

A manufacturing company had a troubled plant in their operation.  They recruited a seasoned manufacturer to become the plant manager.  He had a good feel for the production process and the corporate bosses felt that he could fix the problems in the plant.  He was a teller.  Whenever the production team was faced with a problem, they sent for the plant manager.  He’d investigate the situation by talking individually to the people involved; he would inspect the process and (usually) quickly determine a corrective action and tell the people what to do.  Efficiency improved.  However, several less obvious side effects occurred. 

1. Production people became dependent upon the savvy of the plant manager and abdicated problem solving in all but the most obvious situations.

2. The plant manager was constantly interrupted, being pulled away from his responsibilities to address production issues as they developed.

3. The plant manager worked long hours at the plant and remained on-call for around the clock problem solving.  He became frustrated at the limitations of his people.  He became harried and overworked.  His home life suffered.

4. However, production efficiencies improved and capacities were added.  The company made bigger promises to larger and more demanding customers.  The company leveraged this plant’s new performance to build its competitive strategy, commit to capital expenditures and move into new markets.

5. After two years, the plant manager “suddenly” announced that he was taking a position in a different, better company---one that would let him spend more time at home.  

6. The plant suddenly became more of a liability to the corporation as problems cascaded throughout the rest of the company.  Since they had increased customer expectations, the company was in a worse competitive position than ever.

Such scenarios routinely play themselves out in businesses both large and small.  What at first seemed like a solution only masked problems occurring at a more fundamental level.  When the company decided that they needed to hire a tougher plant manager next time, they set the stage for the next cycle of problems.

Transcending Harried Leadership

Every leader occasionally acts as bossy.  Every leader occasionally tells someone else to do something.  It is only when these postures become usual and customary that the leader begins to slip into the bog of doing it all.  The core of good leadership is balance.  The ability to shift gears, as the terrain requires, is fundamental.  Any leader that simply operates without examining his or her mindset is relying more on luck than skill.

A mindset is a habitual perspective that allows us to operate on a type of intellectual autopilot.  All human beings are prone to developing a comfortable perspective and then using that as a template to deal with the world.  Your mindset maintains its effectiveness as long as the circumstances of your world don’t change.  However, effective leadership in today’s business environment seldom affords you the luxury of such comfort over time.  Leadership is a role and that role requires you to be constantly vigilant for on-going developments that affect your business climate.

If your goal is to become a gifted leader, you must develop the mental flexibility that’s necessary to lead effectively in a complex business setting.  You can do so by adopting the following to the following four practices, for which I use the acronym, GIFT:

• Grasp
• Incite
• Forge
• Transform

Grasp:  A leader’s role requires a grasp of the big picture, the circumstances in which the company is operating.  Grasping the big picture involves two components.  A leader must routinely gather intelligence of what is happening both within the organization and in the world at large, and the leader must ensure that the business assumptions of the organization are continuously validated against those evolving conditions.  Set the mechanisms in place within the organization for gathering and employing intelligence.  It is only common sense that the more eyes and ears applied to these tasks, the richer the data.  The leader must not be wedded to comfortable assumptions that rigidify the maneuverability of the organization as a whole.  Efficiencies in working obsolete processes do not create the conditions for success.

Having the entire team gathering and analyzing intelligence ensures that a company’s perspective doesn’t become a mindset.  Charging the leadership team with monitoring and grasping events and their implications for your business idea leads to the development of the organization’s ability to keep the big picture in focus.

Incite: Grasping the big picture is not sufficient unless it is used to incite the organization to make the right adjustments.   It is the job of the leader to incite, to stir to action, the people in the organization.  Insights and awareness must be shared.  Their implications must ripple throughout the organization if there is going to be a focused, coordinated response to changing conditions, be they threats or opportunities.  Of course the current assumptions must be managed, but this is the work of the people in their various functional roles.  If leaders get sucked into day-to-day operations, they lose their ability to incite others to expand their perspectives. 

Inciting a workforce means that those in the lead are deliberately working to help others to use what they are discovering as they do their work to continue to stay focused on the big picture.  The stories that are told, the examples that are held up, and the instances of good practices have to be thoughtfully selected and propagated.  Think of the conductor leading the orchestra.  The leader must listen and instruct so that the team plays well together.

Forge: A leader must shape the organization’s efforts to do the work.  A leader can supply the pressure and force required to create an organization that stays aligned with changing conditions.  In talking of force, I am not talking about bullying and pummeling.  There is a force that comes from people staying focused as much on their purpose as on their form.  How we must work is as important as what we must do.  There are many ways to accomplish most tasks and effective leadership monitors both the how and the what of the work.  Becoming immersed solely in the what leads to a loss of perspective about the how.

A leader is most effective when he or she uses the commitment, the purpose and the drive of the people in the company to ensure a thoughtful execution of its tasks.  A leader can deliberately harness the energy of the workforce to fulfill its potential or s/he can hope that it occurs.  Hoping is never as effective as ensuring.
Transforming:  The work of a leader always involves transformation.  A leader causes the parts of the whole to continue to evolve as circumstances change.  Going from where we are today to where we want to be in the future requires the deliberate attention of people in the lead.  This is where bossing and telling always fall short.  It is the thinking of the workforce that is transformed in a successful company.  People see themselves differently over time, they collaborate differently over time and they evolve their abilities over time.  The leader needs to be looking ahead so that these transformations are focused and purposeful.

More of the same always results in more of the same.  This is the recipe for stagnation.  Even the most successful companies are vulnerable to being leap frogged by the competition if they are wedded to what used to work.

Gifted Leadership

Highly effective leaders are those who avoid becoming harried by the day-to-day demands of the work.  It is tempting to turn your attention to solving the problems of those who work for you, but success comes from establishing the capacity for people to learn from the demands of their work.  If a leader will work to grasp the big picture, use that insight to incite the workforce to high performance, forge the organization into a thinking, adaptive enterprise, and focusing on the continuous transformation of the individuals involved and the organization as a whole, then they will be truly leading the enterprise. 

Transforming The Harried Leader Into A Gifted One 2004
Daniel D. Elash


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