Feb 23 2019| Leadership
by Phil Eyre Founder
Some months ago, the head of an investment bank remarked to me that “the best leaders know when to sack themselves.” His point was not about avoiding looming problems or collecting a big payoff but instead, that great leaders work with horizons that extend way beyond their own tenure in the role.
The best leaders do so, not so much for themselves but for others; not for the sake of leadership itself but for the health and growth of their organisation. And there’s a point - recognised by the best leaders - at which their own particular skills are no longer those that are needed to serve the bigger vision and the people.
Leadership Development Focus
This got me thinking about leadership horizons, focus and intentions as well as the biases inherent in the leadership development industry. It strikes me that a lot of leadership development is heavily oriented towards improving the life and skills of the individual leader - without a great deal of attention paid to their followers nor indeed to the long-term health of the organisation that they lead. For example, “when to sack yourself” is rarely featured as a module in leadership development programmes!
Leadership development that focuses instead on the people that are following the leader, with a long-term horizon, produces healthier leaders and healthier organisations.
Follower-Focussed Not Leader Focussed
In our research and work with leaders and leadership teams in the Channel Islands and UK, we observe these five characteristics in leaders that are follower-focussed rather than self-focused:
1 - Future Leaders First
Leaders who express their ambitions in terms of future leaders rather than their own successes have the health of the organisation in mind.
They have a keen and genuine desire to develop future leaders, even if they themselves are new in their roles. They frequently use phrases like, “I’m here to bring on new talent” or “I want to help people overtake me”.
In these scenarios, leadership development is more about equipping them to equip others. One Channel Island CEO put it like this at a recent offsite; “My primary role - arguably my only real job here - is to help you all grow and take this business forward so that you won’t even notice when I’ve gone.”
2 - Long-Term Horizon Thinking
Great leaders know that they don’t have all the answers. Leaders with long-term horizons recognise that what’s worked in the past - what’s got them where they are - won’t work in the future.
New technologies, trends, problems and opportunities are developing quickly. Rather than cling on to past success for a long as possible, great leaders hold the past lightly whilst earnestly seeking new and fresh perspectives.
We observe that such leaders are open to critique and challenge not only in executive meetings but in more open places - the office kitchen, reception areas, on one occasion even in a lift. They welcome ideas, even if challenging, from across the business.
3 - Culture First
They care more about culture than results. Or to be more accurate, they care about cultureand results but a healthy culture takes priority over short-term numbers. This is far easier said than done. Whilst theoretically, the idea that leaders should prioritise a healthy culture - desirable attitudes, beliefs and actions - is readily acceptable, in practice, there is often a dilemma between culture and short-term results.
Three business leaders that we’re currently working with are facing this issue. In each case, a team member is delivering results (stellar results in one instance), but their behaviour and attitudes do not fit well with the culture.
Follower-focussed leaders know that they need to take action, even if they risk denting short-term results, in order to ensure the long-term health of the whole organisation.
One of the three has done just that, taking the courageous decision to exit their colleague. The mood in the particular team immediately lifted and in just a matter of weeks, we have observed higher morale and no loss of output.
4 - Long-Term Success Over Quick Wins
Horizon-focused leaders get (very) frustrated with quarterly-earning targets. This is perhaps more relevant to listed companies, where the pressure to deliver good news over short periods is more pronounced.
Leaders with longer-term horizons recognise that it can take many months - years sometimes - to achieve phenomenal results.
A short-term, quarterly focus, creates the risk that decisions will be made with three months rather than three years in mind, potentially missing better outcomes. Simon Sinek puts it like this; “Great leaders would never sacrifice their people to save their numbers; they would sooner sacrifice the numbers to save the people.”
5 - Doing the ‘Right’ Thing (For Everyone)
Great leaders give up some of their own rewards when they’ve achieved excellent results. This is not about giving up bonuses for failure or error (that’s for another blog) but instead giving up share options, bonuses and other rewards when richly deserved.
The common theme, in our observations, is a desire to leave some potential reward for future leaders and others in the business. For example, in a professional services firm, shareholders trimmed their holdings earlier than required so that rising talent had the opportunity to buy in sooner than expected. The finesse here is that this is quietly done - it’s not at all about show, but about “doing the right thing for the people”.
Human Data Predictions
Leaders’ particular expertise in human data analytics enables us to predict whether an individual or team is self-interested and short term in their thinking. Whilst remedies are unique to each individual, one common tactic to overcome hubris is to deliberately spend time listening to and supporting the people at the front-line of the business - front desk, customer service, manufacturing team etc. This usually sparks a healthy and humbling reality check.
Leadership development that is solely focussed on the leader misses the point. Effective leadership development orientates instead to the people being led not only today but far into the future.
Call Phil Eyre to find out more.