Managing to lead, because we are all leaders now

January 2, 2009

The difference between what is a “leader” and what is a “manager” and what is “leadership” and “management” is the stuff of consulting heaven! It is a debate that has spawned thousands of books, articles and workshops…and no doubt there are still careers that will be made for the man or woman who can coin an original bon mot to capture the very essence of the distinction…

As I have never been one to fear to tread boldly where the once uncertain path has already been beaten into a multi-lane highway, here is my take on what leadership means and why, like it or not, we are all in leadership roles

1. The phone rings answered by the personal assistant, his boss is in an important meeting and he would not normally interrupt her. The call is from his boss’s Chairman, an important but not critical message is taken. In this situation should the PA interrupt his boss’s meeting?

The PA as manager would take the message and reflect on how his boss would read it …would she want to be interrupted or not? Depending on how he interprets this question he will act accordingly.

The PA as leader would ask the Chairman, “She is in a very important meeting just now, but will be finished in an hour. Do you want me to interrupt her or can I get her to call you as soon as she is done?”

In the first instance the PA managed the situation against known norms, in the latter, the PA leads by testing whether the known norms need to move, he then takes the initiative, offers a solution and acts on guidance that he himself has helped to shape.

2. You are a junior lawyer called into a meeting to represent the law firm with a client who will instruct the firm on an important but not terribly complicated deal. In the meeting everyone is more senior than you.

Should you simply introduce yourself and take notes?

The lawyer as manager asks pertinent questions about the deal and takes copious notes. The notes are obviously being taken to inform the team and the client will normally reflect that this is a satisfactory way to proceed, but there is a danger that the lawyer is perceived as little more than a waiter taking a food order to the kitchen; a conduit without too much value add.

The lawyer as leader will probe the client about their business, their objectives, their hopes and fears…The lawyer will be genuinely and enthusiastically interested in what the client does and what the client wants.

The same notes are taken for the same purposes, but now the lawyer is perceived to be more of a player, an influencer, a champion…a leader.

3. A bank project to launch a new I.T. platform for savings accounts is running into the ground, there are delays and budget overruns. You are the in-house lawyer on the project responsible for ensuring that the technical specification is developed and tested so that it meets all the relevant regulatory compliance requirements.

The in-house lawyer as manager has a file of notes and messages clearly delineating that they have done all they could; that any delay is at the door of others and that as soon as the project can be put back on track, they are willing and able to make a full and valuable contribution. In the meantime they have plenty of more productive work to do.

The in-house lawyer as leader will be on the phone to the project team encouraging and challenging everyone to find the bottlenecks and the obstacles; offering to help move things forward and leaving their legal brief behind to support activity in whatever way they can. The in-house lawyer as leader is not a busy-body or the classroom snitch, but someone who through their energy, integrity and empathy with people can begin to unblock problems and encourage momentum for the greater benefit of their own responsibilities.

4. Your eldest daughter, just six years old, is in a school play with a solo verse to sing. You are called into a significant meeting with your chief executive which is due to start at 6pm but if you are not away by 615pm you risk missing her sing.

As manager, you probably dislike this situation more than most, but you rationalise that it might be career limiting to miss the CEO’s meeting, you might even judge that you could make it up to your daughter, but might not have the chance to make it up to your CEO!

As leader, you phone your chief executive and explain that this is one of those very rare occasions when you simply have to be somewhere else. You offer to call in later, to check for voicemail etc and that you are content for actions to be designated your responsibility in your absence; you also offer to send some one in your place.

Any chief executive worthy of the name will encourage you to see your daughter and be grateful for your frankness and your humanity.

5. You are asked to attend a networking event to launch a new book on legal best practices. There will be around sixty people at the event and you suspect you know probably two of them.

As manager you attend the event, but once there you stay in the shadows until you spot the one or two people you know, you then make a beeline for them. You enjoy their company, it is good to catch up after all; then after an appropriate amount of time (just enough to make it look like you have made an effort) you leave…once home you send a message to your boss on your Blackberry that you have been to the event (thus ensuring your great sacrifice of an evening out late is duly noted)

As leader, you request an attendance list in advance and you consciously note the people who will be there; you look for connections, for common interests and for opportunities to share information. You know this is not the place to ask favours or to overtly sell or proposition, but it is the place to test views, to judge interests and to offer to help others with their concerns and issues. As leader you don’t outstay your welcome, but later you write a few emails to the people you met thanking them for their time.

6. You are the junior partner in a law firm; the client has now instructed you on three separate deals to review relatively similar but different sets of terms and conditions. Each piece of work costs the client $5000, but in your view for an investment of $8000 the client would be able to develop their own standard terms and conditions and not have to instruct you again.

And you know the answer to this one already…

You see, we are all leaders now.

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