Defining Leadership – an interview with Steve Balzac

Study the phenomenon known as Leadership and you’ll find there are new books published on the topic all the time — over 1,000 new books each month.

This week’s interviews, with Steve Balzac and Matt Edelman, begin to define “What is Leadership?”

Steve Balzac suggests that we start with understanding that the leader is whoever the group agrees is the leader.

Leaders provide direction (what I call “Sense Making” — what this all means). Steve even suggests that the value of providing vision and direction is so important — and a team can be so grateful for that, that they will follow that leader even if that leader got it all wrong. They may follow that leader off a cliff.

On the other hand, a leader without a group is just a guy taking a walk.

Leadership success can be circumstantial — a person who proves to be an excellent leader under certain circumstances, may be much less effective in other circumstances. Churchill was embraced by the British public during WW II and voted out of office as soon as the war ended.

Can you have an effective team without a leader? No, says Steve. Even if there is no formally identified leader, there will be someone who helps the team gel. This is because of the nature of teams — consider the Dream Team of great US basketball players who performed very disappointingly, because they never gelled as a team. The leader is the person who helps the group understand the problems and make sense of them.

Every new team starts off with some fear and uncertainty — and we see “safety oriented behavior” — the members are concerned about themselves and how well they’ll be able to get along with the group, whether the group may harm their own lives or agendas. Will I be able to work well with this group? they will ask.

New teams are very polite and tentative. This is evidence of a lack of trust — because they are unwilling to be vulnerable. They’ll resist admitting ignorance.

The leader is the one who emerges who provides a sense of safety within the group. This person creates the framework within which the members of the group can work safely. Over time this leader may fade into the background — the casual observer may not see any leadership behaviors. It’s like a master of jujitsu who seems not to move, yet his attacker ends up flying across the room — after a year or so a team’s leader may not be seen leading.

In other words, a team can evolve past the need for a directive leader, however it will always pass through that phase in its forming stage.

The team has an existence separate from the individuals that make it up. That’s a concept we may want to drill into in a later show.

What about the difference between “leadership” and “management” — is there a meaningful distinction?

Steve suggests that the manager leads us along a map, and the leader takes us off the map. The leader provides the safety, structure, and inclusion in the group. Leaders are not always taking us new places — sometimes they just keep us safe or make us better at what we are already doing. And maybe that staying in place person is more of a manager.

If leaders provide safety, what about results? If all you do is take care of people and don’t focus on tasks, you’re no leader. So, in the early days of team formation, the leader focuses perhaps 80% on belonging and team spirit. When that is starting to take root, and the team is more self supporting, the leader shifts focus more towards performance, production, and results.

If that focus moves too quickly to performance, however, the tensions in the team can burn people out.

Consider the impact that a leader can have. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, it was at a time when that company had been written off. Jobs was able to provide the shared vision that brought the company back together and dramatically improved performance.

Ronald Reagan was able to re-ignite optimism and belief in the future at a time when the country was pessimistic and worried. That hadn’t been seen since JFK and the moon shot.

The next leader may try to use that same technique and fail because the nature of the problem has changed. So a good leader may have to switch approaches in response to changing circumstances.

Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, took care of his people. When a train full of IBM people went off the track, he traveled overnight to organize personally the response to get everyone taken care of, to find them hotel rooms or get them to medical care. He also never laid anybody off through the Great Depression.

The leader has to create a vision of the future and not be governed by fear — to “know when not to care” — as Watson put it, IBM would either be a great company or cease to exist, however it would not limp along as a mediocre company.

Steve suggests that heavy layoffs can be a big mistake. Economies turn around. Do you honestly think you’ll be able to turn around and hire back all those good folks? Everyone else will be hiring at the same time. The advantage will go to the firms that holds on to its best people through the rough times.

Mass layoffs are a symptom of prior mistakes. If your business is undergoing mass layoffs, it means the leadership screwed up big-time in the months and years prior.

Can a front line worker be a leader? Absolutely. There are go-to people who are thought leaders and sense-makers, the folks that everybody goes to for help with certain kinds of problems. Such informal leaders don’t have the power to include and exclude, however they are still leaders.

How much of leadership is position, and how much is personality? Position can give you a bigger megaphone. The office you hold can confer on a person a level of authority that they might not otherwise achieve. However that person has to be able to motivate, communicate, and inspire or they’ll be a poor leader.

What would a failure of leadership look like, and what is it that they do wrong that makes it a “failure of leadership”? One would be an inability to provide vision and direction. Another would be the inability to work with the culture of the business. John Sculley failed at Apple because he was not able to work with that culture, and the culture rejected him almost like a body’s immune system would reject a foreign body. Sculley was the CEO of Apple when Apple was seen as having no future. Apple became ill, people were unhappy, and a leader fails when he is unable to provide that safety and trust that folks need to be in high performing teams.

Another failure would be the leader who leads everyone off a cliff, not listening to his own people who are saying “look out for the cliff!” Good leaders listen.

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