What Leaders Really Do

Leadership success is not accidental, but comes from a purposeful series of steps that enact change in a shared ownership of a preferred future. John Kotter’s book offers some crucial insights into What Leaders Really Do. Far from disparaging management, since this provides the mechanics of success, leadership provides the blueprint in several key ways that are not always seen in those with the role description to lead.

1. Setting a Direction

This is not about long-term planning alone. It does not merely set budgets or targets when these are more clearly associated with quantifying and achieving the direction. The articulation of vision needs clarity. Whether the leader is a non-profit CEO, a corporate executive or even a school teacher, leaders paint the potential of a compelling vision and individualise this where possible. They inspire people with a belief about what needs to be done but also why they should do it, even before showing how. This needs purposeful adaptation to inevitable changes around us so as to stay ahead of the game and keep people mobilised.

2. Aligning People

The differing directions of well-meaning people can presume to own a vision, but they demonstrate subtle differences of intent. After articulating a vision, leaders need to inspire people to want to run (not just walk) in the right direction. This is devilishly difficult in settings where people are not paid and feel entitled to define their own ideals. This highlights the need for tailored feedback through coaching. Great leaders will allow the innovation of different approaches or strategies, but first must ensure that everyone is actually tracking along the right path. Management will necessarily recruit and train, but unless hearts are aligned, teams will simply be better equipped to disperse.

3. Motivating People

People feel powerless if they are not given shared ownership of direction. Aligned teams need to be released according to overarching goals and then given freedom to achieve these in new or creative ways. This taps a basic human need by releasing control, and not only in the form of defined portfolios. Shared elements of team performance can all too easily bear the hallmarks of managers’ directives. When these are portrayed as leadership but without genuine empowerment, frustration builds and momentum stalls.

Kotter says leadership is about coping with change, whereas management copes with complexity. The presumption is that change is often forced upon us, but leadership articulates it whereas management facilitates it. Both systems will decide what is needed to some extent, but they do this in different ways.

To create a culture of leadership, then, is to transmit the DNA of change creation in keeping with our key values. That won’t happen without some challenging opportunities in which new leaders can emerge and then test their skills and aspire to have them refined by others. Existing leaders will amplify the vision in a way that is faithful to the core values which cannot be compromised.

They will also cultivate a ‘can do’ response that not only fosters a resounding ‘yes’ to what needs to be done but then harnesses the best management processes to turn that ‘yes’ into a sustained and growing reality.


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