The Leadership Continuum

You can watch this 18 minute video or scroll down and read this blog in full. This is an overview of what I call The Leadership Continuum which is a multi step growth overview of leadership.

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Many business owners face daily challenges that require outstanding leadership to work through but the unfortunate truth is most have little to no practical training or experience in this regard. Simply calling yourself a Leader does not make you one; becoming an effective Leader requires time and effort. The school of hard knocks is not enough on its own.

Hi there I am Wayne Fredin. In this blog and video I am going to introduce you to what I call the Leadership Continuum. It is a simple way to understand the steps every leader must go or grow through. There are no shortcuts or hacks.

Before getting into the meat of this material I want to address two big leadership myths.

1.      Leaders are Born and not Made. There is no question some people exhibit strong leadership potential and abilities seemingly at an early age, but they are the exception and not the rule. As Forbes says, Leadership is a Skill and not a genetic disposition.

2.      Leading and Managing are the Same. Some good leaders are good managers and vice versa but that simply means those people are good at both. Typically, every leader has a management responsibility and all managers have a leadership responsibility but that does make them the same thing. In my book Sales Leadership: Distinctions with a Difference I devote a whole section to this. To me it comes down to the overarching fundamental that Managers do things Right and Leaders do the Right Thing! I explain how they differ in the following five different ways

a.      Managers React and Leaders Act

b.      You Manage Resources and You Lead People

c.       Managers focus on Rules, Leaders focus on Values

d.      Managers focus on Process, Leaders focus on Outcomes

e.      Managers insist on Compliance, Leaders ask for Commitment

Last point before getting started. I am not going to be discussing either the types or styles of leadership or the characteristics of leadership. Those things exist in all the different stages or steps through the leadership continuum.

So what is leadership? At its simplest it is all about influence or getting others to do what they might or would not otherwise do without your leadership.

The Continuum. This diagram shows the steps in the Continuum. Follower, Titled Leader, Self Aware Leader, Leader of Leaders and Mentor Leader. I am going to walk you through the steps and offer some insight and perspective on each.

Follower. This may only happen to you once or a few times as you grow up or it can happen in multiple situations from sports to work to community service and everything in between well in your adult days. We could have an interesting debate on whether you will always be a Follower in some form or fashion even when you are the owner based on any outside work activities, groups or communities you associate with. You cannot lead until you first know and understand what it is like to be led. You quickly learn what you like and do not like about the leadership you get. You will probably spend a lot of time discussing the leadership style, qualities and effectiveness of your leader within your group of followers and these examples and discussions will ultimately inform how you develop as a leader.

Titled Leader. For most, the first step of leadership is based on a title or position promoted into or otherwise earned. Few have any formal leadership training ahead of this ‘appointment’. If you are fortunate, you will get some mentoring or informal training over time. In spite of potentially holding a number of these positions over time in the same or many organizations the overwhelming majority will never grow beyond this level or step of leadership.

Let’s examine the number one reason why this happens.

I am sure you have heard the adage Strictly Business Nothing Personal. It normally comes with a BUT at the end as a leader goes ahead with telling one or more what they want done. To me it is a way of saying don’t be mad at me for doing this, but this is how it has to be. This normally happens when the leader is giving direction to people he or she is friends with and especially if there is a family relationship in play. I understand this very well having been in business with my Father. At one point we were struggling with some issues that just had to get worked out. In the business we were equals but we were challenged with two other dynamics. First, he was my Dad and all that infers. What complicated things is we were both ex military – he retired as a Warrant Officer and I had left the Regular force as a Major and at the time was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Reserves. I agonized for days how to have this meeting and finally came up with an idea that went beyond starting with Strictly Business. I took a clean piece of paper and drew a line down the middle. On one side I wrote Personal and on the other I wrote Business. I said to my Dad ‘you are my Father and I love you but for the next few minutes we need to have a Business discussion and try not to be emotional about it and we are both equals in this discussion. Will that work for you? When he agreed we hashed things out for about half an hour and a couple times we had to remind each other we were on the Business side of the page. When we came to a final agreement on how we were going to move ahead I pointed to the paper and said we are back on the Personal side again – give me a hug and lets have a beer. A bit of a long winded story but I have used that exact same strategy with many people since and it is so much stronger than just saying Strictly business..

Leadership is NOT a popularity contest. As a leader you do not have to be liked by the people you lead but you must be respected. Too many new leaders work too hard to be liked and in the process often find themselves significantly conflicted emotionally when facing a tough decision. If you think about it for a minute leadership is really all about taking care of people and if you do this well, most people you lead will come to both like and respect you.

This like and respect thing is very important to understand. I have worked for a number of leaders I would not invite to my home for dinner but I would proverbially follow them over the hill.

 My last thought on this is that in all my years in leadership roles I have not once said ‘that is an order’ You constantly see this on TV and in movies but to me the moment you have to say that is the moment you have lost the respect as a leader. There are very many other ways to make sure people know it is not a suggestion or recommendation but words matter and how you express them can be key. Just think about how King Heny II said in 1170 ‘will no rid me of this meddlesome priest’, referring to Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury and shortly afterwards 4 knights travelled from Normandy to kill Beckett.

Self Aware Leader. The next step for a leader is when they become what I call self aware. This is when they have the knowledge and experience to understand the impact they have as a leader. As a self-aware leader, they start to demonstrate what I earlier outlined as the differences between management and leadership and in particular the key concept that Leaders DO THE RIGHT THING!

One of the other things I have personally noticed is that self aware leaders are more inclined to participate fully in the decision process when given the opportunity. With self awareness comes competence and confidence. With competence and competence comes the ability to speak truth to power. When you can do this with reasoned dispassion you move beyond leading a small team or group to contributing to leading the organization in a larger sense. 

Self aware leaders also understand that they have a responsibility to do what they can to develop leaders from within their own teams. Titled leaders are typically nervous about not being seen as the leader. Often and mostly without realizing it, they will do little to assist their subordinates to develop and grow into leaders in their own right. When I was an Army Officer we were expected to make sure someone in our team could step up with no notice and take over our job. We even practised it regularly in two ways. On exercises an umpire would come up and say something like ‘bang you are dead, go have a shower and hot meal and in a few hours you can come back to life’ and in the interim it closely observed how the team reacted. Even when in garrison we often had to attend courses away from our home base and someone had to step in and do our jobs while we were gone.

Leader of Leaders. When you enter this step of the Leadership Continuum things will change dramatically. Leading other leaders is so different from leading followers that it is almost a completely new environment. What is interesting is that you will still likely have followers reporting to you, so you must be a bit of a chameleon and switch back and forth in your leadership style and approach constantly. In my experience in the military and in business I have learned that leadership at this level tends to be much more consultative and advisory based. Additionally, more of the decisions taken in these environments are strategic and not tactical in nature which means there is usually less pressure to make a decision in the moment. Let’s examine a few key ideas to be aware of when leading other leaders.

Avoid Hasty Decisions and Direction. You will constantly encounter situations where you are called on to make a decision or give direction on the spot. Where possible you want to avoid doing this without the opportunity to fully understand the situation, get the advice of your subordinate leaders and other stakeholders and follow some type of decision making process. It is also ill advised to give direction or make decisions and announce them publicly without telling your subordinate leaders so they are onboard and ready to reinforce and implement your decision or direction. As an example, let’s say you are hosting a town hall with all your company staff and one employee asks a very good HR related question like ‘do you support allowing employees to work remotely 4 days a week and only come to the office once a week or when necessary? To set the stage you and your team have started to examine this but as yet no decisions have been make. If you reply with ‘that is a great idea, I support it and we can make that happen’ you have now backed yourself and your leadership team into a corner with little wiggle room. A much better answer would be ‘that is a great question. Our leadership team has already started looking at a remote work policy and we are planning to be able to make an announcement on this in the next few weeks or so.’ You acknowledge the question, provide some good information and commit to something in the near future without showing your hand or limiting your options.

Voice, Vote and Veto. When you are leading other leaders, they need to understand they have a voice, they often have a vote, but you own the veto and final decision. Let me explain. A confident and capable leader of leaders will meet with his or her team on a regular basis and on an ad-hoc basis for more pressing or urgent matters. Depending on the size of the team these meetings can be agenda driven to the point of almost being scripted or they can be free ranging. Often an update briefing by one of the team will identify a situation that requires a decision. As the leader you should invite a spirited debate on the issue and invite perspectives and recommendations. Sometimes you will need to give your team time to take away the situation for review and consideration for a future decision. Regardless, this is the time for your subordinate leaders to speak TRUTH TO POWER. As a strong leader of leaders the last thing you want is to tip your hand early to sway the discussion and you also do not want to hear what your team thinks you want to hear. You need to empower your subordinate leaders to be open, honest and transparent in their views and opinions. You want rigorous debate especially if this is a major issue. It is even okay to have ‘arguments’ as long as everyone is respectful in the process. And remember this – you will never have all the information or data and at some point you will have to make a decision anyway. The key here is to give your subordinate leaders a voice to be heard, allow them to vote on the proposed options but do not feel compelled to simply go with the majority. In the end you have to own the decision. More importantly once the decision is made it becomes the decision of the whole team and you can not allow any of your subordinate leaders to ever represent to anyone outside the ‘room’ to say otherwise. If they cannot get onboard with the decision one hundred percent and support it unequivocally as if it was their idea in the first place, then you have to be prepared to take remedial action which could include taking that subordinate leader out of your team.

Leadership is a Learned Skill. One of the most critical responsibilities you have as a leader of leaders is to continually work to develop those leaders. There is a school of thought that you cannot teach leadership, but it can be learned. I am sure you have heard the adage attributed to Buddha that ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’ and this is very much true for leadership development. If the student is not ready the development will be limited and often frustrating. The best way to teach leadership is by example. It really is that simple and that complex at the same time. By being the best leader you can be and by constantly working to improve your own leadership skills and abilities you set a bar for others to strive to achieve.

Subordinate leaders will often come to you to discuss a challenge they face. They will describe the situation and then ask you something like ‘what do you think or what would you do’? If you give them an answer you have effectively made the decision and taken away their authority on the issue. My advice is to just keep asking good questions that drive them towards making a good decision. Make them own the decision but help them understand the process. They might even make a different decision than you but let it play out or there is ultimately no learned value to that subordinate leader. 

Focus on Your Team. The more you focus on your team the less you will have to worry about yourself. Think about this for a minute. If you are the or a boss and you identify someone in your team who constantly raises the level of performance of his or her subordinates including developing other strong leaders, would you not look for other challenging roles and responsibilities for that individual? If you focus on developing and supporting your people and earn their respect and gratitude, they will go to the proverbial wall for you to do everything they can to help you succeed. One of the best ways to do this is to give away the credit and accept the blame. The buck stops here is not just some pithy quote – it demonstrates a culture of growth and excellence. That does not mean you do not hold your people accountable for their decisions and actions but where you did not give them the support, training or resources needed to be successful, you have to own up to that as well.

You know this but it bears repeating. You learn more from failure than you do from success. Failure and success are not opposites. They are most often inextricably linked and separated by only the narrowest or smallest of distance or outcomes. Remember that Success is a Destination but Growth is a Journey.

Mentor Leadership. The final step in the Leadership Continuum is when you are perceived as a great leader and mentor. The formal term for someone being mentored is a mentee but I like to joke that for every Mentor there is a Tormentor! For some this is demonstrated very publicly through books, workshops, speaking engagements and the like. The Mentor Leader may never meet their Mentees in person but they have significant and lasting impacts regardless. For the majority of Mentor Leaders this is quietly done on a constant and very personal basis. These Mentor Leaders often provide this type of leadership in their jobs, in their volunteer work and in their private lives. Some do it unknowingly but many do it with purpose and intent. Quite simply they are highly self aware, confident in their abilities and want to help as many others as they possible can.

So there you have it, my take on the Leadership Continuum. If you would like to have a follow up conversation about how you can improve the leadership skills and abilities in your business reach out to me and you can tell me where you are and where you want to be. If we feel there is a benefit to continuing the discussion we can schedule a one hour virtual complimentary roadmap to results coaching call to explore the options available for you to get to the outcomes you want.

Thanks for your time today and I wish you the best of success!