The best way to get value from a heart surgeon is to fill their day being nice to patients with mild infections and tummy upsets.
The best way to get value from a pilot is to give them a plane they rarely fly and ask them to land it at an unfamiliar airport in high winds when they are at their most tired.
The best way to get value from a senior lawyer in a leadership role is to give them no tech support, a bunch of ambitious career-focussed people to manage and a reducing budget, while also expecting they can still do the day-job they had before. A day-job that will probably include comforting those with “tummy upsets” as well as doing the “heart surgery”, and “flying” deals in the middle of a windy night when absolutely knackered.
Leadership is not easy, but we risk making the environment so dysfunctional that it is unlikely normal people will succeed or even want to apply.
The sort of people who are attracted to leadership roles in these dysfunctional circumstances are either the least suited, seeing leadership mostly as a sociopathic passport to enhancing personal status; or they are really good people who want leadership to be a purposeful, collaborative endeavour, but where the systemic dysfunction of structure and inherited misplaced purpose is often overwhelming.
We therefore need to change the environment, because normal people make brilliant leaders. Normal people make brilliant leaders because they do not think their work defines their life. Normal people are vulnerable, have weaknesses, won’t always succeed, can handle set-backs, and love working in teams that are supportive, creative and thoughtful. Normal people get stuff done, despite stuff. Normal people know how to ask for help, know their limits and know when they need an expert. Normal people enjoy a life away from work and do not see the success of others as a threat, but something to celebrate. Normal people doubt their ability, but try to plan, try to do the right thing and trust that other normal people feel the same way.
Normal people, however, may not put themselves forward for leadership roles if what they see are good people weighed down by the dysfunction; or they see a few people relish it, but judge them to be too self-centred, too self-confident, too political, too unwilling to be vulnerable, too sure that others must be wrong if they are to be right.
My thought is this – we won’t attract enough normal people into leadership roles by wallpapering the dysfunctional cracks with “family friendly policies”, or forums for women, or diversity training. We will only attract enough normal people when we create an environment where we value reflection as much as decisiveness; where we see people not as high potential units of human capital, but as mums and dads and neighbours; where targets include collaboration, care and kindness; where true success is measured over the longer term, not bonusable quarterly targets; and where doing the right thing is more important than the easy thing.
We ask a lot of leaders, but the biggest thing we should ask of them is to be normal. Let us therefore create an environment in which normal people can succeed.
Take care. Paul