Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Some thoughts on leadership and management

There has been something of a focus on leadership and management (or should that be leadership vs management?) over the last couple of weeks. Jo Alcock posted Seven Lessons About Effective Leadership on her blog, where she listed some lessons she’s learnt about leadership as part of the CILIP Chartership process.

This was followed by #uklibchat on Tuesday 29th May, which was on the topic of leadership (thank you to @Annie_Bob for the storify of the conversationand Emma Cragg posted Leadership and Management on her blog in the middle of last week.

This got me thinking about my experience of leadership over the years, both practical examples I have witnessed or experienced and also the learnings about leadership from my MBA studies.  The first thing that struck me was the lack of any really positive examples I could give; perhaps this is because leadership is very hard or maybe I have been very unlucky in the leaders I have seen?

Some examples:  
  1. A company whose leader had the vision that it should be the largest and best in its field – probably a common and possibly a laudable goal in business.  However, this was translated into annual regional goals which were somewhat unrealistic.  It was clear that when managers were asked for growth projections anything not in double figures was simply unacceptable – did this mean that the leader had little understanding of conditions ‘on the ground’, or really thought that anyone suggesting less than 10% growth year-on-year just didn’t have what it takes to ‘make it happen’? Perhaps the leader had a great vision but lacked the communication skills to carry the staff with them?
  2. A company whose leader was charismatic, had a loyal team of staff, led the firm to growth over several years, and had a clear vision of where they wanted the company to be and which new areas to go into.  Unfortunately the key one of those ventures turned out not to be the massive growth area the leader had expected, and it never made sufficient revenues to break even.  This shows that even with a ‘good’ leader the clear and compelling vision they create, which people are prepared to follow, isn’t always the ‘right’ vision.  A leader can draw the wrong conclusions from the information they have or can filter the information they receive to fit their dream, and so make the wrong decisions.
  3. A company with a well loved leader who looked after their staff, led the firm to growth over several years and managed the working process and company finances really well.  However the leader didn’t tell anyone in the company what the strategy was, what their vision for the firm was, or where the company was heading.  Despite having a strong brand and great reputation, the firm just jogged along making small profits.  Perhaps this leader was more of a manager at heart?
There seems to be general agreement on the attributes of a leader – vision, charisma, provide inspiration, confidence, communication skills - I think that some of these can be learned but others you either have or not.  One example could be confidence and self-belief – you may be able to adopt a veneer of confidence sometimes, in some situations, but to put yourself forward as a leader, with a view of ‘how things could/should be’, and to take difficult decisions which may not always be popular, I think takes real self confidence.
While self confidence may be innate, having it means there are other skills (which perhaps don’t come so naturally) that a wise leader would make sure they learned – enabling opposing voices and setting up mechanisms to ensure information contrary to what the leader wants to hear gets heard for example.  In one case I can remember, a leader was so fixed on their vision of growing the firm that they refused to listen to their managers who were telling them about a forthcoming downturn in the market, to the extent they borrowed heavily to fund the expected growth and nearly bankrupted the company when the downturn they refused to believe in duly came to pass.

One of the points raised in the #uklibchat that caught my eye was that communication skills, universally agreed to be a vital skill for a leader, were very hard to teach / learn.  Leaders need to communicate to inspire people with their vision, to motivate and encourage their followers, to negotiate with partners and to promote their vision to external parties.  They need to make everyone believe in their dream; believe that the different state of affairs that they envisage is not only desirable but achievable. 

The vast majority of CVs I’ve seen over the years include the phrase ‘good communication skills’.  Beyond the obvious (written or verbal), what does it mean?  For a leader it means being able to inspire by talking about their vision (whether in a speech to hundreds, or one to one in a conversation), to persuade and negotiate, to give and accept criticism, to use effective body language and tone of voice, to give a great presentation, to gather information by asking questions, to give instructions and to praise and encourage followers….phew, no wonder ‘communication skills’ are hard to learn!

Although it helps to have read about the basics of what makes up good communication (University of Kent has a good summary on their careers siteit is only by putting these ideas into practice (probably repeatedly) that effective communication becomes second nature.  Outside of work, where trying to act like a leader in non-leadership positions might cause unwanted waves, I believe that probably the best environment to get this practice is within one of the various information groups, especially through volunteering to be on a managing committees.  Although this may sound daunting, many of the groups are crying out for people with the interest and energy to step forward and give some time and effort to help organise things, so it's well worth asking informally if there are any ways you can get involved.

Some other ideas on ‘what makes a leader’ can be found in the literature.   Psychology Today has an article that claims there is little difference between leadership and management, beyond semantics, but several sites have lists of differences between the two – including those of Practical Management and Performance Coaching International.

ChangingMinds argues that the main difference is that leaders have followers, while managers have subordinates. Finally, Harvard Business Review has a whole series of classicarticles on the subject, 10 of which have been collected together into one piece (subscription required).

Another librarian-written piece, by Andrew Burlington, Emerging Technologies Librarian in Burlington, USA, has some tips to get started on leadership straight away.


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  2. Great article and it's nice to read a discussion that is rooted in real-world examples. As for "good communication skills", I'll have to be sure to check back here next time I'm applying for a job! Such a hard thing to quantify.

  3. Hi Jacqueline

    Thank you for your comment - I think perhaps 'what makes good communication skills' would be a good title for a future blog post; I'll add it to the (growing) list of topics to write about!


  4. Your thoughts about leadership and management are direct to the point. The insights here have surely inspired a lot of managers and employees.