Leadership : Great Leaders are Effective Interpreters

Albert A. Vicere is executive education professor of strategic leadership at Penn State's Smeal College of Business, and president of Vicere Associates, Inc., a leadership consulting firm with clients around the globe.  He is one of the country's top leadership coaches, and is the author/editor of several books including Leadership By Design, The Many Facets of Leadership and more than 80 articles on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

View his website by visiting www.vicere.com or e-mail him on a.vicere@vicere.com

I once had the pleasure of attending a speech by James Ross when he was President of BP America.  In that speech Ross noted, “Seeing is auditing life.  Vision is interpreting life so that others may see it.”

What a powerful set of words.  Did you ever hear the debate on the difference between management and leadership?  If you want the answer to that question, I think Ross hit the nail on the head.

Managers are auditors.  They keep tabs on what’s happening in the organization and make sure work gets out the door.  That’s crucial to organizational performance, but it’s not leadership.

Organizations may need auditors to get things done, but who makes sure that the right things are being done in the first place?  And who makes sure that employees across the organization understand what the right things are?

That’s where leadership comes in.  In Ross’ words, leaders are interpreters.  They help others to understand the challenge, buy into the strategy, and get excited about their work.

You need both leaders and managers in an organization, but it seems leaders are in short supply.  That’s a problem because the typical business organization today is a pressure cooker.  Change is constant, technology is shifting, and competition is more aggressive than ever.

To deal with these challenges, organizations are restructuring, outsourcing, and engaging in countless other measures intended to enhance performance in an environment of relentless challenge.

What’s the impact on the typical employee?  To a large extent, they feel concern, frustration, and stress.  Some 40 percent of the respondents to a survey by Northwestern National Life said they were extremely stressed on the job.   And stress-related health concerns are estimated to cost corporations hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

In times of change, people look to leaders for stability and direction. People want and need to know that someone out there has a plan, has time to think through the options and to get the organization on the right path, and is watching out for them.

Too often, however, leaders fail to deliver the goods to employees looking for a beacon across the stormy seas of change.  And too often the problem is that leaders don’t understand their role.

In an environment of stress and change, leaders need to engage people, help them understand the challenges they and the organization face, help them understand why and how we all need to change to stay successful.  They need an interpreter.

Instead, they often get auditors.  “Just do it” may be a great slogan for athletic gear, but it doesn’t cut it for employees who are worried about their future and uncertain about their role in the company.

What’s an organization to do?  How about focusing on developing real leaders?  Not automatons who blindly push work out the door, but skilled leaders who help employees understand the organization’s business, its direction, and the opportunities that exist for employees who buy into the organization’s future.

Too many companies have defined leadership development as a process of measuring an individual manager against a predefined list of competencies or as a process of equipping managers with the skills needed to get work out the door.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these techniques as long as the organization realizes that it may be doing more management development with these processes than leadership development.

The fundamental questions for organizations is whether they’re promoting not just managers who can get results but leaders who are truly skilled at getting others to get results and be excited about their achievements.

If employees don’t have a credible interpreter leading them into the future, they’re more likely to suffer from stress—to be overwhelmed and looking for an organization that is doing exciting work, values them, and gives them a sense of purpose.

And creating a sense of purpose is what leadership is all about.

Ó Copyright Albert Vicere 2005

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