Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
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Shared leadership for success
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Why providing leadership opportunities outside the C-suite will reap rewards

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Teams need multiple leaders, and a plethora of leadership skills to function effectively. Organisations that recognise this are the ones that will see performance success.

9th Sep 2021
Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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In this strangest of summers, you probably cast an eye from the couch at one or other of the postponed sporting events which came thick and fast. And whether you tuned into the Euros, the Olympics, the Hundred, the gruelling spectacle of the Tour De France, or – currently and perhaps most interestingly, the Paralympics – the chances are you were at times listening to the cliché-ridden analysis by TV pundits.

The 'L' word

If you were – as well as learning how various athletes were giving 110%, digging deep or showing how much they wanted it, you may also have heard a word familiar to us all in the L&D world – leadership.

Some of this leadership was displayed by the official manager. Gareth Southgate’s role as the manager of the England Men’s team has been praised - rightly. He built a group loyal to each other, clear about the roles they play and unquestionably supportive of each other. The egos which bedevilled previous teams seem to have been set aside, replaced by a single-minded focus on team success.

Leadership is distributed amongst others who have a direct bearing on the play and – in team sports – the team’s performance

He has also taken a stance beyond the pitch – his ‘Dear England’ letter is a masterpiece in both supporting his team and recognising that team’s wider significance. But as in all sports, the manager or coach or performance director has one simple drawback to performing the leadership role. They don’t go onto the pitch or the track or into the pool. They can’t ‘lead from the front’ as the oft quoted military cliché has it.

Leadership is distributed amongst others who have a direct bearing on the play and – in team sports – the team’s performance. Sometimes this is the captain on the pitch or the person taking the last leg in the relay, but often individuals without an official leadership role or the captain’s armband are praised for taking command of the situation, showing the way, making smart decisions, inspiring others, and calming (or consoling) their colleagues.

This has a bearing on the role which we play in learning and development. I have been around long enough to remember when management training was re-badged as ‘leadership development’. It was a find and replace task. For the most part, the content of the courses and modules was relatively unchanged, just the words were altered (and often the price tag!)

A modern approach

Most damagingly, perhaps, accessing leadership training and leadership development courses remained the preserve of those in named management roles – supervisors became team leaders; project managers became project leads and functional managers became ‘chief’ something or other. As well as some increased responsibility (and occasionally ­– but not often enough – accountability), came the golden ticket to the suite of leadership programmes, courses, and initiatives. 

Organisations were considered enlightened if they delivered leadership training to high potential individuals on talent fast tracks and those with aspirations to step up to a so-called leadership role. But the link between job title and leadership development remained stubbornly unbroken.

In reality, a cursory glance at most successful teams shows that leadership is distributed. Individuals with no specific management responsibility are influential, can support and coach their peers and set the tone for how the team performs.

Leading by example is not the preserve of those on the highest salaries or the corner offices. In fact, leading by example may be impossible once the leader is separated from their team by the trappings of seniority.

Instead, everyone can lead and those organisations who recognise the reality of distributed leadership build the skills of individuals to exercise their leadership in ways which directly contribute to success. The alternative is having a team of leaders without a unifying vision, shared direction or set of values.

There will be disjointed effort. Hobby horses will be ridden, and group think, toxic cultures and bullying can as easily be the outcome as focus and shared goals. If we agree with Drucker, that ‘Culture eats Strategy for breakfast’ then it logically follows that a poor culture has the potential to defeat an organisation’s strategic intentions.

The unified vision

If the sports pundits are to be believed, organisations would do well to focus on unleashing the leadership skills of all their people. Leadership is a distributed capability. It is performed by individuals aware of the behaviours they exhibit and the impact that these behaviours have on those around them and the overall success of their team.

We should recognise that teams need not one leader but a plethora of leadership skills, exhibited when required to meet the demands of the moment. Leadership emerges from the context not the position. And good leadership is informed by a unified vision and a concern – above all else – for the success of the group.

Leading by example is not the preserve of those on the highest salaries or the corner office

It follows, therefore, that leadership development cannot and should not be the preserve of those who have climbed the greasy pole. Apart from anything else, it may be too late for those who have risen to the top (and is often provided too late as well).

Whether the individuals you watched topped the podium or – like the England Men’s football team, fell at the final hurdle, this is just another context – a stage to go through in pursuit of an unchanging vision. That vision will be achieved through mutual support and by shared values.

It will be achieved by a team of individuals who contribute what is needed when it is needed without concern for position, status, or ego. It will be achieved by team members who know when to follow and when to step up and show leadership.

Denying those lower down the hierarchy access to the skills, behaviours, and confidence to lead from wherever they are in the organisation is short sighted. Open the doors to the leadership curriculum and see the effects on your people – and their performance.

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