Karen Ellis is Vice-President of the Public Service Renewal and Diversity Branch at the Public Service Human Resource Management Agency of Canada, supporting the development and implementation of the “Renewal Agenda” described in our March issue by Kevin Lynch. She has worked in nine departments, including DND, over the past 23 years. What are the key leadership lessons that will support renewal?
Leaders’ impact is profound. They must navigate through an increasingly complex world, enabling others to make the journey successfully. The following are lessons I have distilled from leaders I have worked with, and from my experience.
Lesson One: Make sure that your followers know your meaning and intent, then lead them to the accomplishment of the mission (from The Principles of Leadership, Canadian Army).
The exceptional leaders I do my best to emulate are focused, strategic and dogged in this pursuit and they maintain compelling personal engagement over the long term.
A leader’s first role is to provide clarity of vision, purpose and direction, so followers can situate their work and contribute to its support. If you do not understand where you are going and why, you will not be able to explain it in plain language to the people following you or to your family and friends (the latter should be the litmus test). This includes understanding the relevant history, the context, and anticipating where the big picture is moving. And it requires explaining these things to people, many times over, in a variety of ways and venues – in person as often as possible.
Once the direction is clear, the leader needs to ensure that systematic and sustained communication and engagement spread throughout the organization, building collective understanding and commitment. A janitor at NASA, when asked about his job by a visitor, replied: “I’m helping put people in space.” He understood the strategy and his role in its support.
Leaders are bold about establishing and communicating standards and expectations regarding performance. They expect people to perform, and ensure they equip the team to deliver results. Then they take time to recognize progress and excellence in tangible ways.
Lesson Two: Assume authority and establish the rules of engagement early. People want strong leaders whom they can respect and trust. It is important to establish your presence as soon as you take up your post.
In my experience, most people appreciate clarity when it comes to roles, accountabilities and expectations. This does not at all preclude flexible and creative teamwork, it simply means that clarity serves a fundamental purpose, especially within less hierarchical approaches.
As a young teacher, I learned to establish my authority to gain immediate respect from students, or lose control of the class. I was too friendly with my first class and paid the price. As a public servant, I have come to appreciate the critical importance of establishing one’s authority and the associated professional boundaries. Being respected is essential; being liked is a bonus.
Another striking lesson I have learned is that if there is a leadership vacuum, there is always someone who will fill the space.
Leaders who are new arrivals in well-established cultures can sometimes be under-estimated or resented. I believe in taking explicit steps to tell people literally and figuratively who you are, how you work, what you expect, what they can expect, and what you bring to the table. In doing so, with your signature style, you are establishing the rules of engagement transparently and unequivocally. This critical step needs to be taken as soon as possible.
Some of the most challenging situations I have faced have been those where governance, accountabilities and reporting relationships have been unclear, resulting in destructive pressures and diminished productivity. The real lesson in leadership is to avoid creating these situations in the first place. The buck has to stop somewhere. I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys walking on eggshells every day.
Finally, leaders need to be transparent about how they are going to deal with performance issues. They require the resolve, courage and support to deal fairly, compassionately and truthfully with those who need to know that things are not working after best efforts all around. Sometimes, giving the gift of encouragement means encouraging someone to make a change. Everyone may not be treated equally but all are treated fairly.
Lesson Three: People with humility don’t think less of themselves, they just think of themselves less (Ken Blanchard, The Heart of a Leader: Insights and the Art of Influence).
It is of utmost importance for a leader to have humility and self-confidence in balance. And the more senior you are, the more important this is. Humility is grounded in knowing that you need other people to get things done. Staying in touch with a circle of peers and friends who share your burdens and tell you the truth about what they are observing in your behaviour helps keep you grounded.
Humility enables you to keep learning, to make mistakes, to admit them, and to grow from them. When you show your humanity in this way, you permit others to do the same. As public servants, we also need humility because sometimes, no matter how much expertise we have, our advice may not be taken. As long as we know that we have done our very best in developing and communicating that advice, we can learn to accept this as the reality of our profession.
Self-confidence is the other side of the coin. You need it to assume authority and establish your presence as a leader, to engage effectively with superiors, colleagues and your team. You build self-confidence by building credibility through competence, knowledge, your ability to influence, and by knowing how to establish and nurture positive and effective working relationships with those around you.
You build confidence in yourself and in others when you recognize and celebrate even modest successes and build on them, especially when working through big changes. And you gain wisdom and experience by choosing your battles wisely and not trying to win the whole war at once.
As a leader, I had to learn how to stop doing too much myself. I learned very quickly that thinking and behaving as if I was the only who could get things done properly was actually a failure of leadership. As a trusted person put it, I was showing signs of the deus ex machina complex – like in the old Greek plays where one of the gods suddenly appears out of nowhere and solves a seemingly impossible difficulty. I had to stop!
While taking over is sometimes necessary, and is sometimes an act of downright desperation, the leader needs to assess the root capacity problem and do something concrete about fixing it. That means teaching, equipping and supporting the team to be able to do their work and do it well. Only then will you be liberated to demonstrate your trust and confidence in people, and most will respond in positive ways.
When you have self-confidence and humility in equal measure you will be able to make space for others to grow and to shine. Part of leadership is to know when your intervention is truly required. When you empower others, you will have joy in their accomplishments and you will measure some of your own success by the quality of their success; you will help grow