The Work of Leaders
Leadership and management are frequently used interchangeably, as synonyms. And yet they’re not.

People who excel in management are often also given leadership responsibility. While a person’s role might span both, if they conflate the two, their effectiveness and success will suffer. As will the effectiveness and success of the organization they’re charged with leading.

The tendency is to focus on management — the processes that keep the organization functioning and performing. But in the world today, an organization can’t expect to do well if it’s well-managed and under-led.

In this small piece, we’ll narrow the focus, concentrating just on isolating the handful or so of things that are uniquely the work of leaders.

By clearly understanding the work leadership requires, the likelihood increases that you and your organization will achieve more of what you intend. Not just more of the same.

Leaders inspire (slightly) irrational beliefs — and empower believers.

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.”

There’s an expression that leaders take people where they want to go, but that great leaders take people beyond that — to a place they can only imagine but ought to be.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade,” had that quality when Kennedy spoke it.  

So did Sergey and Larry saying that Google would “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Both are bold examples of ideas that initially sounded absurd and slightly irrational — yet successfully empowered others’ belief in making them reality.

Leadership isn’t about the here and now —  it’s about focusing a group on its highest intention, even if reaching that intention is barely conceivable.

a ladder reaching up to the sky.

Ladder for Booker T. Washington, Martin Puryear, 1996

The paradox is that the openness needed to be improvisational is most effective when counterbalanced by a groundedness. Leaders make sure no one loses sight of the greater possibility and deep principles that are guiding the organization.

What surprises most leaders is the repetition this takes.

Generally, when we travel, there’s no need to keep telling everyone in the car where we’re going and why. But this isn’t true of leading people to their highest intention. Where and why need to be persistently, consistently repeated, experienced and demonstrated through actions.  

Navigating towards highest intent is never a straight expressway. Repetition, repetition, repetition helps ensure that you stay on course through all the tacking necessary on a higher trajectory.

Leadership is rightly acknowledged to be an improvisational art. In pursuing an organization’s highest intent, there will be never-seen-before challenges that arise requiring the ability to respond as the journey unfolds.

Leaders persistently, consistently navigate the organization towards its highest intention.

Leaders identify and structure essential problems.

Hidden figures. African-American woman writing on chalk board.

“We shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of withstanding heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour.”

A rocket launching with an audience watching.

These days, leaders have to be able to identify whether they and their organization face a technical or adaptive challenge — a challenge solvable with existing expertise, or one so complex and ambiguous it requires developing new or novel ways of solving.

Adaptive challenges put greater emphasis on leadership because neither everything that needs to be understood nor the processes involved may be known yet.

Leadership often provides coarse-grain strategy sufficient to put the organization on the path of learning and creating what the future requires.  Similar to Kennedy in his speech, coarse-grain strategy might simply mark important trailheads where more detailed strategic plans will need to be developed.

Strategy is where leadership and management overlap. The strategy of leadership is more often coarse grain and directional, while the strategy of management is mid- to finer-grain and executional.

Ven diagram showing overlap of management and leadership.

Kennedy’s “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech might not have been so galvanizing had it been a simple declaration. What he included that was so important was acknowledgement of some of the basic challenges that had to solved to be successful — materials and structural engineering, thermodynamics, guidance systems, and the like — all spoken in plain (well, Massachusetts) English.

Leaders create and harness tension while monitoring and managing distress.

Cycles of change began to noticeably accelerate in the mid-20th century. Numerous theories of how to manage change developed in response.

These theories — several of which are still prevalent today — have a mixed track record. If change management were a golf tournament, the most familiar theories wouldn’t make the cut.

These familiar theories were developed when change was largely technical, not adaptive. As a result, the more leaders face adaptive challenges, the less useful many familiar change management theories tend to be.

There are better and worse ways to create tension and regulate distress. What’s important in creating tension is to focus on the gap between current reality and intention. One highly adept adaptive leader we worked with said, “Leaders focus on how much farther they have to go, not what they’ve already done.” Likewise, what’s critical in regulating distress is not to lower your intention. Instead, leaders help people build their adaptive strength.

Leaders play a difficult but critical role in addressing adaptive challenges. Their job is to create and harness tension and to monitor and regulate the distress that tension is likely to create. The goal is productive tension, which is the source of inventiveness.

Ben Gomes is a Distinguished Engineer at Google and leads engineering for Google search. He holds over 70 patents associated with Google search, and reported for years directly to Larry Page, the co-founder and former-CEO of Google.

In a conversation with Ben, we asked him why Google was so consistently recognized as a “great place to work” —acknowledging that too often that was portrayed as the perks the company is famous for.

Ben’s response was immediate, simple and inspiring. He shared that no matter how successful Google became or how much he himself had contributed, that in his frequent meetings with Larry, four-out-of-five times what Larry would say to him was, “You’re not thinking big enough.”  

Leaders pursue greater self-understanding because of the shadow they cast.

Everything a leader says and does has an impact not only on outcome, but also how it influences the people around them. It’s important to understand how your leadership impacts others.

In 1999, Goldman Sachs launched a leadership development initiative, and one of the key models it introduced is the “leadership shadow.” It’s a model that makes leaders conscious that what they say, how they act, what they prioritize and how they measure outcomes all determine what gets done — and what doesn’t.

It can be hard to see your own shadow, so it becomes important to develop the self-understanding needed to be aware of and shape your shadow. This often involves growing as a leader — not just in terms of new skills or abilities (although those do help), but in terms of ability to deal with complexity and contradiction.

Leaders are perhaps least aware of the shadow they cast when they operate from what’s known as a socialized form of mind. This is when the way someone makes sense of what they know comes from outside — whether from family, colleagues, or professional principles.

Leaders tend to be more aware of their shadow if they’ve developed a self-authored form of mind. Leaders operating from this level no longer look outside of themselves for direction on what is good or bad, right or wrong, but make decisions guided by a set of values and beliefs they’ve developed.

The leaders who tend to be most aware of the shadow they cast are those who operate from a self-transforming form of mind. At this level, a leader is always looking for the next thing that will challenge their values and beliefs — and are open to the possibility that their values and beliefs will be reshaped by their interaction with others.

These stages — socialized to self-authoring to self-transforming — are what is known as vertical growth or adult stage development.

Leaders never stop learning.

When your curiosity is low, you are more prone to escalation of commitment — doubling down on your existing expertise.

Leaders understand that they have to not only push themselves to the edge of their area of expertise, but jump the fence and explore beyond their expertise.

A group of leaders we worked with recently developed the habit of exploring beyond their expertise using the app FlipBoard. Another group takes “field trips to the future,” visiting companies working at the cutting edge of innovation in various fields. Yet another works at cataloging various customer experiences they have — so they’re learning from how CX is changing outside their industry.

Mark Cuban — the tech billionaire best known for owning the Dallas Mavericks and being a “shark” on Shark Tank — recently acknowledged he has to constantly keep learning. For example, when he realized he didn’t really understand AI or machine learning, he bought Machine Learning for Dummies and put copies in the bathrooms of his home, office and plane — where he knew he’d have no excuse not to read them.

CGI rendering of neurons.

“Picture your brain forming new connections as you meet the challenge and learn. Keep on going.”
— Carol Dweck

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