Some time ago I spoke to a long standing colleague who had recently moved into a new role in a different organisation. His first few months had been difficult to say the least. A few weeks into his new role he was told by his head office to cut costs and headcount in the face of the economic downturn. So instead of looking forward to developing his new business and taking it forward, he became known as the hatchet man brought in by head office to ruin a once successful business.
“That’s the privilege of being a leader” I said. “I’m not sure being a leader is a privilege at the moment!” was his reply, and our conversation started me thinking. Leadership has three principal components: power; accountability; and responsibility - the latter being nowhere more important than when dealing with people. In this aspect, the privilege of leadership really comes to the fore.
The starting point perhaps is to go back to a (sadly) not untypical approach to leadership. Back in 1960, Douglas McGreggor suggested that people were either Theory X or Theory Y. Theory X people came to work and tried to do as little as possible. They therefore had to be controlled, measured and almost forced to work! On the other hand Theory Y people naturally sought to be the best they could be and therefore just needed to be guided. Of course it’s all rubbish (well in my opinion at least!) because people don’t fit into neat little boxes – though sadly leaders often treat people as though they do. There is a business leader called Randy McGurk who runs a chain of fast food restaurants in the South West of the
. His approach is the “2% Jerk Factor”. Believing that since the vast majority of his team of assorted cooks, waitresses, and cleaners want to do a good job, he therefore reasons that he should base his approach around them, not the 2% of his team who were “jerks”. His experience is that if he treats people well, they respond accordingly, thus disproving Theory X/Y. Incidentally he has also found that the 2% of jerks didn’t last very long because his other employees quickly make it clear what is expected and the so called jerks either fit in or leave. That means that there is little need to resort to complicated and prescriptive performance management policies and procedures! Incidentally, Nordstrom (the upmarket chain of departmental stores in USA can fit their entire employee handbook onto less than one page. Their approach is simple – “Use Your Best Judgement”. If you care to look at their share price and shareholder return it outperforms the S&P Index significantly. Richard Branson has a similar view. In this month’s HR magazine he says “"I’m happy to say I’ve never read a book on HR theory or people management. Our guiding principle is this: give individuals the tools they need, outline some parameters to work within, and then just let them get on and do their stuff." So the bottom line is that if a leader treats all his employees as Theory X they will appear to be exactly that because we all get what we focus on. So my belief is that there’s no such thing as Theory X/Y people, only Theory X/Y leaders. USA
So where does the privilege come in? Well – if we go back to the responsibility that comes with leadership, then the greatest responsibility that a leader has is for people. Ah yes, but what about bottom line profit? Yes of course that is a leader’s responsibility as well, but he or she doesn’t actually produce any bottom line profit. Leaders guide, direct, command, produce policies and make deals, but hardly ever produce hard cash. It is the employees who actually do that. So leaders need people if they want to increase bottom line profit, or growth, or shareholder return. Without talented people to deliver what the customers need, a leader’s efforts will achieve nothing. The greatest responsibility – and therefore privilege - a leader can be given is for other people. There’s a well known campaign that goes along the lines of “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” and so it is with people. Employees have to endure the good and bad times and a leader’s prime responsibility is to ensure they are engaged, have the tools, skills and freedom to give of their best (Theory Y) and are then supported so they can perform to the best of their ability. In good times and bad – indeed especially in bad times - if employees feel that they are supported they will continually surprise and delight leaders with their talents and efforts.
There‘s a simple formula in terms of performance.
Performance = Potential + Support – Interference
A leader’s responsibility is to maximise the support and minimise the interference. At times it may seem like a thankless task as my colleague found last year, but it goes with the territory. Being given the privilege of guiding, directing, liberating, and at times controlling the work destiny of others is the greatest privilege a leader can be afforded. Perhaps we should all remember that privilege!