What is a Leader’s Job?

By Guy Higgins

I just read a McKinsey post (I just happen to have subscribed to McKinsey – not that I think that they are any better or worse than any of the other big box consulting firms), Wellness at work: The promise and pitfalls. The post captures the thoughts of a number of leaders from various organizations about wellness at work. As you might expect, the thoughts cover a really broad range of ideas, expectations, and cogitation. As I read the post, I couldn’t help but think that, in my mind, every one of the ideas, expectations and all the cogitation revolved around good leadership.

When I was on active duty in the Navy, everyone knew that the unofficial (but very real) job title for the Commanding Officer (CO) was “Morale Officer.” What, exactly, does that mean? It means that the CO is responsible for creating a “command atmosphere” that empowers every person in the command to succeed, holds people responsible for their professional performance and personal behavior, emphasizes well being (aviators are big on not aviating when you’re not physically and psychologically well enough to fly – you can easily get dead if you fly when you’re not well enough), recognizes achievement and generally enables mission success. Naval aviation squadrons really do recognize that squadrons can’t succeed if every person in a squadron isn’t contributing to the best of his or her ability.

Private sector organizations aren’t military units and can’t always use the same techniques we used in the Navy (we could restrict a sailor to the ship or to the barracks for good reason, but you have to let employees go home – otherwise the FBI comes looking for you as a kidnapper). That said, how are organizational leaders supposed to create employee engagement, encourage physical and psychological wellness, improve productivity and achieve organizational success? Well, (sea story coming – if you’ve already heard me tell it, skip to the next paragraph) when I was at the Navy Test Pilot School, Major Lew Watt, USMC, told us, “The most important thing to know about rotary-wing aircraft is that all moving parts are connected to all moving parts because you don’t want any moving part to stop moving unless they all stop.” It struck me then that the same applies to the rest of the world – nothing exists unconnected to everything else even though the connections may not be easy to see or to trace. So, I’m going to offer a list of “stuff” that goes into a leader’s job and, where appropriate, draw on some of my previous posts.

A leader needs to:

  • Clearly and transparently set the top-level goals for the organization (although she need not do this in a vacuum – cognitive diversity is a big help here).
  • Establish a process to create, and continually adapt organizational strategy, that enables every person to contribute – at his or her level – to setting the details and achieving their goals.
  • Support and follow transparent “standard processes” that can be quickly and efficiently modified via some kind of continuous improvement (this is, I think, a really hard thing to do and so requires serious leadership attention).
  • Emphasize the importance of regular (daily or even more frequent if warranted) feedback – both good and critical.
  • Invest in educating everyone in the organization
    • Areas of technical expertise
    • Company policies and the rationale behind them (e.g. wellness, cognitive diversity)
    • Leadership (I will boldly assert that you can’t be a good follower if you don’t understand leadership at, at least, some basic level, and I don’t think there will be many people who will never need to lead some effort or team in the workplace of the future.)
  • Provide the resources needed for the people in the organization to succeed. These resources include what they need to directly achieve organizational goals, and those resources needed to create that “organizational atmosphere” I mentioned above (things like break rooms, access to fitness facilities, counseling, flexibility in working hours).
  • Measure and monitor performance – the goal here is to find problems early so that they can be corrected when they’re still little problems and not catastrophes. This means looking for root causes.
  • Get rid of people who aren’t personally invested in and contributing to that “organizational atmosphere.” This, very specifically, means adhering to Robert Sutton’s No Assholes Rule. It also means helping people who aren’t “carrying their weight” to find jobs somewhere else. That sounds like PC-talk, but it means that leaders need to treat employees – even the ones who need to leave the organization – with dignity and respect. I once worked with a leader who said that his job was to find the right job for all his folks – even if that job is with a different organization.

I can hear it now, “That’s a lot to do!” Yes, it is. As I’ve said before, being a leader means doing the hard things. Creating that “organizational atmosphere” and solving only those problems that are so wretched and difficult that no one else in the organization can solve them. It’s not a job description for which many people would apply, but it is reality (and as Edith Ann on Laugh-In would have said, “That’s the truth, pfffft!”)





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *