To begin at the beginning

This is the first in a series of management talking points. The name Leadership 7s has been influenced by rugby, which is quite possibly the emblematic game of my youth and of the home country of my Mom and Dad, Wales. In fact, much of what I learned about leadership in my formative years came from influences such as rugby union.

Here are the first seven talking points that deal with aspects of leadership, coaching and management.

Leadership point #1 – Always have a Plan B

Never ever go without a Plan B. Having a Plan B turns a good strategy into a great strategy, and if and when Plan B becomes your Plan A, you should also make sure there is another plan to replace your old Plan B.

In my childhood Britain, milk would be delivered from the back of a ‘milk float’ (an open sided van), to front doors and back doors, in reusable glass bottles, by the whistling ‘milkman’ (the man or woman who delivered the milk to your house). At the same time they would pick up the used, empty and rinsed bottles from previous deliveries.

It was a great British ‘institution’, which had an air of quaintness,  permanence and charm about it.  It was a job for life, even for the people making, cleaning and repackaging the glass bottles.  Until the unexpected and unplanned happened and glass bottles started to be replaced with plastic and cardboard containers and a plethora of new supermarkets all over the country offering, amongst many other things, fresh milk.

Some people working in the milk business suffered because of the change in habits, and there was no Plan B.

Now, suppose you leave the comfort of your secure and well paid job to create, for example, a Big Data start-up.  At one time you may have surveyed the market and found that people were talking about little else – fads and trends work like this. You may have a solid business case and an amazing strategy. You may have already identified a niche for a new product or service, which will bring in megabucks in super-swift internet time. Your friends may confidently assure you that you’re on to a guaranteed winner.

But what if it all goes wrong and the next great thing, such as Big Data, turns out to be the tech wreck and dot com bomb of the 21st century?

That’s when Plan B comes into play. Plan B’s are there to avert real unplanned disasters.

Leadership point #2 – Learn from everything

Advertising genius Dave Trott tells a great story in which young David Jones (that’s David Bowie to most of us), in contrast to his peers, explored the vast world of music, and he goes on to explain how this formed a solid basis of inspiration and source of ideas throughout his amazingly successful artistic career.

In my own youth I was often criticized for having eclectic tastes, in about everything, as if it was something bad. But over time, this wide interest in many things, and from many angles, has provided me with far more creativity when it comes to what I do and how I do it.

Managers, can become better leaders and people, not by simply copying what management gurus say, or by following some new management fad or fashion, but by going where other managers gear to tread.

We can learn and borrow from other professions, disciplines and schools of thought, from advertising to zoology, from the many arts to the discipline of Zen, from great architecture, from sports, from cultures and nature, from things that grab our attention.

As a manager and leader I take inspiration and ideas from an active interest in classical and modern philosophy, local, regional and global politics and macro, micro and behavioural economics. But I also borrow from other keen interests, playing tennis or the classical guitar, from alternative comedy and art-house cinema, from painting or shooting the breeze with friends, family and acquaintances.

We can also get inspiration and ideas from books. I generally avoid management self-help books like the plague, and opt for other reads. Some of the great books I have read this year include Dave Trott on Predatory Thinking – in my humble opinion a must read for any creative leader; The fascinating Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, which discusses how people act against their own best interests; Walter Isaacson’s grand biography of Steve Jobs; Paul Kennedy’s marvellous The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which puts current dilemmas into the perspective of world history; and, Richard Rumelt’s excellent take on strategy in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy.

Leadership point #3 – Never stop questioning conventional wisdom

Being a full paid up member of the Awkward Squad school of critical thinking and ‘creative abrasion’ I have never had a problem questioning authority or conventional wisdom. However, although there are successful and famous exponents who have continually challenged prevailing trends, such as Warren Buffet, John Kenneth Galbraith and Sam Walton, this attitude is far from being as prevalent as one may assume.

Businessman Tom Peters famously stated that ” Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.” Doing something else is frequently the result of questioning conventional wisdom.

Of course, a true leader needs to judiciously wield the razor sharp axe against conventional wisdom only when it is absolutely necessary. But if in order to get things done the leader must challenge convention, then so be it. Break the orthodoxy, get the job done, and ask for forgiveness later, or never.

Leadership point #4 – Assume nothing

Okay, people may question the need to include this point; after all, any leader worth their salt will know this from the time they learned to speak, right? Well no, not in my opinion.

We can observe that certain managers and leaders, perhaps overconfident in their ability to ‘assume nothing’, do precisely that and on far too many occasions.

Team managers recurrently assume that their staff will be rather less than candid with them, but the biggest fibbers are other managers, the manager’s peers and the people who lead them.

Managers frequently take service delivery and project cost estimates and proposals of 3rd party suppliers – especially incumbent suppliers – on face value, rarely questioning the underlying economic basis and commercial motivations behind such estimates, and then end up getting the companies, whose interests they are supposed to be upholding, stiffed in the process, and once you open up the gate to that sort of commercial and economic abuse, and are even too scared to highlight your faux pas, it can continue for years.

Some managers get to be managers through no other merit than having been in the business for a number of years. This is why you get so managers with weak and patchy management and leadership skills. Other managers become managers because they are ‘qualified’, but without the wisdom that comes from experience they are incapable of handling even a modest management crisis or of communicating effectively, as a leader. These managers also frequently make assumptions – not always a bad thing, but in their case even when the application of basic communications skills, together with a little bit of tact and empathy, would render those assumptions unnecessary.

Of course, assumptions will always have to be made, especially when we get into the area of real strategy, but that should also be accompanied by tacit, coherent and cohesive reasons – yes, which are then documented and shared – for taking on board those assumptions, especially when those assumptions may be a source of significant risk.

Leadership point #5 – Don’t let peripheral issues dominate

You should always know that one of the signs that a meeting has gone off-track is when the peripheral issues take centre stage.  You should also know that more often than not the focus on peripheral issues is a ruse to avoid addressing the central issues.

A good leader knows full well that they cannot possibly control everything, even if they wanted to, and that the desire for total control, total awareness or total influence is eventually risk fraught and counterproductive, and just gets in the way of getting the job done.

Vince Lombardi said that “Inches make champions” and he was bang on the money. John Wooden pretty much said the same thing when he stated that“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”  But they weren’t referring to themselves, the coaches, but to the players and staff.

At the end of the day a manager as leader and coach cannot afford to sweat the small stuff, and should certainly never let peripheral issues dominate. On the surface it’s about not ‘sweating the small stuff’, but more substantially it’s about not letting things get out of hand. Of not letting things become unmanageable.

Leadership point #6 – Know when to fail

We are taught to abhor failure. But a good leader should know where, when, why and how to fail, and how to fail well.

In particular a leader should know that if a project is doomed to failure then it should fail sooner rather than later.

Most leaders, especially of the project management kind, are afraid to admit the truth when things are going so wrong. The tendency is to continue impervious to the fact that they need to either stop a project or to freeze a project, and only continue after a full and impartial project assessment is made.  This wilful stupidity is frequently seen as strong leadership. In fact it’s caused by a complete absence of leadership, and typically a lack of real leadership all along the leadership value chain.

The worst case management scenario of all is when you get lions lead by donkeys. Knowing when to fail – when to retreat – is not weak management, it is true leadership.

Leadership point #7 – No one can give more than 100%

Managers who exhort their charges to give more than 100% are abject idiots who shouldn’t be left alone in charge of a family of whelks, never mind a team of people.

No one, absolutely no one can give more than they can give, and the absolute maximum is 100%

This does not mean that we cannot ratchet up our abilities, our performance and our skills, but all this requires time, effort and application. There is no magic faucet for adding an extra percentage, for as small as it may be, above 100%. Like it or not.

Another ‘issue’ in this direction are the managers who think that if they have enough resources they can do the impossible. This takes me back to an incident that happened in the eighties, when I slightly offended my VP by suggesting that “the baby will arrive when the baby needs to arrive, and no matter how many people you put to work, a human gestation period is still nine months”.  Of course we were referring to product R&D and development, and not to a real baby.

So, that’s all folks!

That is all from me in what I hope will be a series of Leadership 7s (articles and talks).

I would like to leave you with this fabulous quote from Mark Twain… Why? just because.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Thank you for reading.

As always, please share your questions, views and criticisms on this piece using the comment box below. I frequently write about strategy, organisational leadership and information technology topics, trends and tendencies. You are more than welcome to keep up with my posts by clicking the ‘Follow’ link and perhaps even send me a LinkedIn invite. Also feel free to connect via TwitterFacebook and the Cambriano Energy website.

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