You shall not pass
Troubled by the growing turbulence buffeting many of our organisations (particularly our schools), and the overload and overwork that followed, I came to see the role of the leader as a guardian or even a barrier to the outside world.
You work hard to create direction, discipline and purpose. You should be extremely careful what you allow in to disturb that focus. Many of the pressures from the outside world are not directed in your interest. There are fads and fashions which feel compelling but disappear before being replaced by the next. There will be initiatives and ideas, well meaning perhaps, but distractions from your goals. There will be scrutiny, instructions, demands for information or action – unavoidable but often overwhelming in their intensity.
Your organisation can be best served by keeping out as much of this as possible. It is far better to do a few of the right things really well for a sustained period of time than to dance to changing whims of the external world. Constant change costs a lot of money too. You may not feel cutting edge, but you’ll be more effective. And calmer.
I have joked before about the art of strategic procrastination. Often, new ideas and initiatives will come from your superiors, parent organisation or perhaps government policy. They can feel compelling. But, unless it was something you wanted to do anyway, you don’t always have to be first into the breach. Let someone else be the guinea pig. And if you wait long enough, the early enthusiasm often fades and a new imperative comes along.
This is the ‘stuck clock’ school of management. Keep doing what you were always going to do. Every so often, the policy cycle or fashion will turn your way and coincide with your existing efforts. Suddenly you are flavour of the month. Leap on the moment, take all the resources, funding and publicity going and ride that wave until it ebbs away, then keep paddling in your own direction.
Leadership conferences are a particular threat on this front. Managers come back with all sorts of bright ideas that last only until the next conference. Do that too often, and you’ll find that your teams practise their own form of strategic procrastination. If you must collect ideas at conferences, try the batching and ranking strategy – wait until you’ve attended a few and select only the best.
This is another reason you should aim to do a few things thoroughly and stick to them: so that people will come to believe that you mean what you say and cease to outwait your enthusiasms.
But in recent years I have come to see this picture of the leader as guardian is incomplete. Yes, you should keep a lot of pressures out. But not everything. More to the point: you should actively seek out the ideas, advice, resources and relationships you need to succeed.
The best leaders I know are ferocious networkers. They multiply the resources they have internally by drawing on a powerful network of support.
The thing is, it is on their terms. They don’t let random pressures in. They are clear on what they are trying to do and seek out the support they need to achieve it. It is driven by their agenda – a deliberate and proactive seeking – rather than a random and reactive coping.
To be clear, they are often generous in the support and help they give to others; they are frugal and highly discerning in the ‘help’ they will allow others to give them. They set a high bar for entry.
So, as a leader you are actively policing the boundary of your organisation. Keeping out the toxins and distractions, seeking out the assets and the insights.
You’re not too bothered by today’s fashionable management trend, you are more interested in ideas that have stood the test of time. You know that there are no silver bullets – no magic schemes or concepts that will transform your work overnight. It is just sustained hard work, for the most part, getting better and better each time you do it. You’re not trying to impress the bosses either. But you are generous, curious and keen to learn when something matches your aims. This does of course, rely on you having a clear set of aims but, then, doesn’t everything?