Sir Michael Barber once said that the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. It is a useful polemic. I’d like to borrow its form for a proposition about the leadership: the quality of leadership in an organisation cannot exceed the quality of its first line managers. It is this group of people who fundamentally determine the experience of leadership.
Let’s put this in more egocentric terms. It doesn’t matter how brilliant a chief executive you are personally. If you have weak line managers, you will be seen as a weak leader of an unhappy organisation. More positively: it doesn’t matter how inept you are personally as a leader, if you can only find, cultivate and keep great line managers, you will be seen as a great leader of a thriving institution. Of course, if you can do that, you are far from inept. My point is the speeches, the charisma, the grand vision … they pale into insignificance compare to the quiet and humble ability to make other leaders effective.
A short reflection on the nature of organisations makes this proposition fairly intuitive. People’s day to day experience of leadership is with their direct line manager. Senior leaders are distant. Line managers make the strategy and vision real. They turn policies into action. It doesn’t matter what your policy is on bullying and harassment, if a line manager is a bully your organisation endorses bullying. Oh, and that perception won’t be limited to their team. People talk. First line management is the transmission mechanism of your organisation.
What is to be done? I essentially answered that question earlier: find, cultivate and keep great line managers. Make line management a “thing” inside your organisation. It should not be an unavoidable step on a career path, an unwelcome duty that people have to do to get more pay while focusing on their own individual brilliance. It should be a major discontinuity with what has come before, celebrated with rites of passage and accompanied by stern expectations. Measure it, debate and discuss it. Obviously invest in your managers’ development. Spend time with them, teach them, open up the workings and deliberations of your senior team to role model the behaviour you expect; assuming your senior team does role model such behaviours…
Above all, create the context in which your first line managers can thrive as leaders – a sphere of autonomy and authority in which they can excel, blended with sufficient information about goals and context that they can use that autonomy to make good decisions. So that you achieve that elusive blend of front line expertise and senior purpose.
You are a hostage to the ability of your first line managers. This is both liberating and frightening. You know what to do. Stop crafting the PowerPoint for the all hands presentation. Find a manager to coach.