Leaders: Stop making decisions and start leading instead


Executives frequently misunderstand their role and act instead as managers: controlling work and making decisions. They forget that their job is to define the organisation’s direction and strategy and make it clear, compelling and simple enough that everyone – top to bottom – can safely make decisions in line with that strategy.

‘What do you mean “this is a decision that needs to be made by the executive”? Are they leaders or just managers pretending to lead?’

So many people seem to think that the function of an executive is to make decisions. I mean it is just obvious, right, that’s what you need an executive for isn’t it?

Wrong.


The primary role of an executive is to lead, not to manage. Leadership is all about setting the direction for the organisation, thinking about the long-term and delivering a strategy that is clear, compelling and simple enough that everyone – top to bottom – can safely make decisions in line with that strategy.

That’s what executives should concern themselves with.

The primary role of an executive is to lead, not to manage.

That and properly learning and understanding the business and the work of their staff in the first place – as popular TV programmes such as Back To The Floor have highlighted – which is done at the coalface, not through meetings, reports and briefings.

Of course, part and parcel of this second role is monitoring how the strategy is working, challenging whether it is right, whether it is aligned with customer and staff needs and taking responsibility openly and transparently when it is found to be wrong (inevitable at some point). There’s no shame in making mistakes; shame lies in not admitting and learning from them.

That brings us on to another role: executives need to set the example for the culture that they would like the organisation to have. If, say, you want an “transparent culture of innovation that can respond to changing market need without sacrificing quality” then apart from learning some brevity, cultural change begins at home: so how can you demonstrate this culture yourself?

Perhaps you could demonstrate what you mean by a “culture of innovation”? You could experiment with a variety of improvements to the way you work and interact with your teams, hold your hands up to those that don’t work and abandon them – making it clear that it is “OK” to experiment in the process – and share widely with others those that do work and build on them.

You could demonstrate “respond to changing market need” by being willing to shelve pet projects when the data tells you they are no longer the right priority and/or events have overtaken the original need. Rather than shelve them quietly, you could do so publicly and with a simple, frank justification. Then everyone will see exactly what you mean and that you mean exactly what you say.

You can demonstrate “without sacrificing quality” by making sure you keep all your personal commitments to others. This would include turning up to meetings on time, delivering what you promise to others when you promise it and soliciting public feedback on your own performance.

Whether you like it or not, you are an exemplar for your corporate strategy: you need to embody it if expect others to understand and implement it. Living in a world where different rules apply to the executive “because they are the exec” is not going to get the job done.

Living in a world where different rules apply to the executive “because they are the exec” is not going to get the job done.

The point is that in a truly healthy organisation that is really “above average” (and doesn’t just claim to be through Illusory Superiority) staff know what the business is doing, where the priorities lie and are able to make almost all decisions without pushing them up to the executive and waiting forever for approval.

The risk of a catastrophic or damaging decision becomes very low precisely because everyone is so clear what is needed and, crucially, why. This in underpinned by a high degree of trust because the executive are seen to “live the strategy and values” of the organisation – of course you don’t say that you live the values, you have to actually do it.

So many dysfunctional organisations have a micro-managing executive team who desperately put the hours in to try to stay on top of both leadership and management work, suffocating their senior managers in the process.

Be smart. Don’t do that. Be the leader you always known you can be.


Why should strategy come from the executive at all? Truly great strategies are both bottom-up and top-down, combining the best knowledge of everyone in the organisation. They are developed iteratively, in the open, with full participation of key staff through a transparent process.
Posted in Decision-Making, Leadership, Strategy.

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