Oct 132008

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

I regularly help clients who have already decided that they want to become leaders, figure out what it means to be a leader. Most of them start with a rather simple model – being a leader means this or that about a person – or this or that person has certain characteristics that make them a leader. Often these definitions of leadership are ‘learned’ by reading books on the subject. For me, leadership coaching involves helping them develop a more sophisticated insight into the process of leadership and the characteristics that go into making a good leader.

Some years back one of my mentors taught me how to look at leadership in a new way. He was watching me manage a team of senior executives. We were working on a fairly delicate and complex problem. A couple of the team members were having trouble accepting their assignments and seeing how their contributions fit into the overall team efforts. Jim took me a side and said:

“Kid (I was younger then) you need to develop a better understanding of the role of tact in leadership.”

“What do you mean by that?” I snapped back.

“Well, you know what I mean by tact don’t you?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell me,” I responded.

“Well, tact is the ability to tell somebody where to go and make them look forward to the trip”.

We both laughed – I learned and still remember the lesson.

Like tact, good leadership is multi-faceted and an artful combination of predictability and unpredictability. The difference between the art of tact and the objective of it was not lost on me. It was a great lesson about now to deal productively with people over a wide range of situations. Consider, for a moment, some of the various approaches to leadership:

  • The director – the script is written and the cast is assembled – all that is left is to put the actors through their proscribed paces
  • The negotiator – the parties have been assembled but their personal or organizational agendas are in conflict with the mission – time to bring them all onto the same page
  • The facilitator – the team has a common vision for the mission but needs help to implement that vision
  • Synergy inducer – the parts need to form to a greater sum – the team needs to become greater than its parts
  • The change manager – what is, is not sufficient – the team needs to change its culture or focus
  • The arbitrator – there are conflicts within the team that need to be resolved before they can move forward – there is a new sheriff in town
  • The innovator – the team needs to come up with a bold new idea or direction – its time to brainstorm

Ant of these approaches to leadership can be stated in negative terms. Go back and experiment. Mostly this negativity comes when a ‘consultant’ is the proponent of one approach over another – when a simple definition of leadership is being sold. My leadership coaching focuses on having the client learn the value of each of these approaches, developing a facility with each and learning when and how to deploy them. Maybe a couple of sports metaphors will help you understand what I mean.

Now I will admit that I don’t have much use for the game of golf – I’ve never found a good recipe for those little white balls and I get more enjoyment out of walking around a course than playing it. However, what kind of a golfer would you be if you kept only one club in your bag? Think about that for a minute. A driver is useful for getting off the tee but useless on the green. A putter is handy – at least for some – on the green but not worth much during the journey along the fairway.

Or – to another sport that I like better – fishing. What kind of an angler would you be if you had only one lure in your tackle box? Most fishermen know that you need a variety of lures – in a variety of colors – and the experience in using them – to be able to present the correct inducement. That, as they say, makes the difference between fishing and catching.

The idea here is similar. A leader must have a full bag – or full tackle box. They must know how to use each tool in the manner intended to achieve the result desired. To misunderstand the design or usefulness of any of the tools is to reduce your ability to respond correctly when the occasion arises.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II



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