27 October 2010

Position vacant: Leadership with meaning

By Steve Harris

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

The language of advertised employment positions is a window into organisations and our world. They are often as much about optimising the employer’s brand profile as they are about seeking the optimal candidate.

So we see lots of organisations proclaiming to be innovative, strategic, progressive, dynamic, collaborative, ethical, socially responsible and so on. All so consistently positive one wonders how any organisation would ever fall short or fail, or why so many global surveys are showing such high levels of employee job dissatisfaction.

Perhaps because our language, although it really distinguishes us from the animal kingdom, does not always deliver real meaning to what is said, or deliver common understanding of what the same word means to different people. Or is simply manipulated for self-interest or avoidance of reality or consequences.

Much of the world is coping with the gaps between proclamation and performance. Consider the recent performance of various governments, international agencies, financial institutions, churches, auto-makers, oil companies, media, police forces and regulators. So much good intent, so much sub-optimal impact.

And now a fresh solution-problem dynamic has emerged. As the world becomes more complex, more changeable at more speed, seemingly more irrational and incomprehensible, so the calls for “leadership” become louder.

At global, national, community and personal levels, the world cites leadership as a need, which is demonstrably true. And so we see organisations, facing the same complexity and change and competitive pressures, united in a common pursuit: recruit more leaders.

We have always seen the word “leadership” in advertisements for CEOs and senior managers, but now we have this desired attribute washing across all manner of jobs, all levels, all industries.
Positions advertised this year which have cited “leadership” capacity and experience as a key attribute have included: Assistant Manager, accounting practice; Sales Manager, manufacturer; Manager of Open Space and Recreation, for a government body; Building Estimating Manager, for a building company; Purchasing Manager, consumer goods organisation; Director of Faith Formation, church school; Fundraising Head, research institute; Executive Officer in Charge of Processing Planning Applications, government body.

Now there are elements of leadership in all management positions, and some management skills are required in leaders, but the terms are not interchangeable. As more organisations promote that they are “leadership” bodies, and that they are seeking to appoint “leaders”, there are real questions about whether the organisation truly understands the terminology, expectations, measures and selection criteria.

We ought to question any manipulation of language that risks real meaning, understanding and accountability being lost under a veil of spin. This is especially important in areas of complexity and inter-connectedness: the global financial crisis, and the climate change debate, amply illustrated the perils of inadequate understanding of language in any area of complexity (aka life).

The terms “manager” and “leader” ought not be allowed to become or be seen as being of equal meaning, so blurred that they lose meaning. Management is mostly a supervisory focus in an operational sense: setting of priorities, efficient use of resources, direction, organisation, execution, meeting agreed objectives within agreed policies and processes and so on. The term manage comes from the Italian maneggiare (to handle, especially tools), which in turn derives from Latin manus (hand).

Leadership is mostly a thinking focus in a strategic development sense, envisioning a better outcome, identifying forward opportunities and challenges, identifying and driving alignments, enabling and empowering organisations/ communities/ individuals, creating the environment and momentum for challenging the status quo or apparent inevitability.

Anyone looking at advertisements by organisations proclaiming they are “leadership” organisations ought to have a checklist of questions, such as: Does the leadership claim stand independent scrutiny?; Do actions match the rhetoric, and is the leadership evident when the organisation is unwatched?; Is the leadership good for the organisation as well as its staff and community, and the broader world?; Is the organisation really clear on what they mean by the term “leadership”?; Is it the organisation able to demonstrate that it lives and breathes that understanding?; How is the position of “leadership” defined: by position, personality, values, resources, power, influence?; Is the candidate’s “leadership” experience, values, ethics, personality traits and communication style aligned to this particular organisation, its particular culture, its particular relationships, at this particular time?; Does the organisation want a leader who is a change agent/ risk taker or a status quo-er?; Business creator or curator or capitaliser?

The waters of “leadership” run deep, and this is a somewhat cursory dive into the many nuances across different organisations, cultures, geographies, circumstances. But if we accept that all human challenge can only be resolved by leadership in some form, and it’s therefore the number one human need, we might also accept that having broader and deeper conversations about leadership is something of a priority.

While advertisements are about “selling” something, it is difficult to put a price tag on the meaning and value of leadership. And however challenging it can be to define leadership in a pithy sound bite, most of us know it when we see it. And know when someone is a real leader or a LINO: leader in name only.

Steve Harris is executive director of the Centre for Leadership and Public Interest at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia. He is a former newspaper CEO and editor-in-chief.