Estimated read time: 7 minutes
A friend of mine owns a business providing a vital service. Without it, his customers would not only lose money, they would likely die.
His business? Water.
Specifically, anything and everything associated with drawing water out of the ground and distributing it to those in need. Someone else drills the hole; he does the rest. Among a multitude of charlatans and hacks, he is the genuine article, a fact his customers know well.
His business is not my focus here. Rather, my focus is on his employees, many of whom provide manual labor with some degree of technical skill. Leadership skills are not necessary for fulfilling their roles; he directs what needs to be done, and they do it.
Regardless, each year my friend takes his employees to a three-day leadership conference. He gives them paid time-off for the event, all while covering their expenses. Although this yearly conference is stuffed with innovative ideas regarding leadership, few, if any, of these ideas are directly applicable to his employee’s roles in his business.
Why does he do this?
One of the reasons I enjoy sports is for the bountiful analogies one can draw from sports. One of my favorite examples is men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (or Coach K, for short). Duke basketball is a threat to win the national title every year, even though every opponent brings their best when playing Duke. Many of Coach K’s players have gone on to professional careers in the NBA. He recently announced his retirement, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house when the final buzzer sounds.
You would assume Coach K is a master of X’s and O’s. You would be right. Yet, this isn’t the primary source for Coach K’s success. The evidence is the interviews with former players, many of whom say the same thing.
“He taught me how to be a better person.” Even those who have attended college in this “one and done era” say this, an impressive testament to his influence.
What does my friend, Coach K, and other great leaders have in common?
They know their true business as a leader.
Knowing your role
It doesn’t matter whether you are a CEO of a Fortune 100 company, or the most junior manager of a burger-flipping establishment: the day you became a leader is the day you set aside your previous role for the same role required from every leader, every day, all around the world. The only problem is that you likely didn’t know this when you were promoted.
In every organization, the scenario plays out much the same way: an employee demonstrates operational excellence in what they do before earning a promotion to a management position. Although a few find the secret formula for leadership, many do not. Some fail spectacularly in their new roles. Many develop a hackneyed approach for wringing out a measure of success, just enough to get by. A few stumble across an idea achieving a greater measure of success, before failing in their next role.
These managers share one thing in common: their promotion was based on their operational knowledge of the X’s and O’s associated with their previous role. Operational knowledge is necessary for obvious reasons (you can’t lead people towards something you don’t understand yourself), but that knowledge is only one half of the total knowledge necessary for success as a leader.
The other half? A knowledge of people.
The mistake many organizations make is to assume that promoting someone with operational excellence will somehow magically rub-off on those they now lead. The reality is that, even when someone possesses operational excellence, transmitting that knowledge to others involves a whole separate skillset. Just as your business has X’s and O’s, people also have operational processes and procedures, biopsychosocial forces that govern their efforts. Striving for operational excellence as a primary focus produces followers who mechanistically regurgitate what they were taught to do. This works, until something changes.
By the way, change happens. The mediocre leader returns to the whiteboard, drawing up a whole new set of X’s and O’s for their followers, using the same mechanistic process resulting in the same mechanistic regurgitation. Mediocre leaders only understand the operations necessary for making the organization run smoothly, constantly coaching and policing their
players followers in the same basics.
In contrast, great leaders not only coach their followers in the X’s and O’s, but they also help their followers to understand the reasoning behind those X’s and O’s. To put it another way, they don’t create teams with one coach and a bunch of players; they create a staff of assistant coaches who are able to adjust fluidly as change happens. Great leaders understand both the organizational operation, and the human beings who perform those operations.
They also know which of these two is more important for their success.
The leader who focuses on human operations over organizational operation understands that the organization is only one vehicle out of many for the fundamental development of people. Basketball, like your organization, isn’t the point. Instead, it’s about becoming a better person and blessing others. It’s not about winning; it’s about creating winners in life.
Each of your followers possesses their own set of qualities, talents, and strengths. Teaching, coaching, and mentoring your followers, utilizing the context of the operations provided by your business, will produce the drivers of innovation and adaptation you so desperately crave, especially in the face of change.
The quality of every great leader
For those still struggling to understand the difference, let’s create an example.
Say you manufacture high-quality widgets, and you have a customer whose needs have changed in response to competitive pressures in their market. The operations-driven manager will focus on the necessary changes for meeting these new demands. This may include swapping out machinery, moving people to new roles and tasks, and maybe even re-engineering the process through which widgets are made. For the experienced manager, this is nothing new; change not only happens, but it continues to happen.
In contrast, the human-driven manager will likely do the same, but these changes are not the emphasis. Instead, the focus is on coaching employees to maintain quality in the midst of change, using this change as an example for instilling the character trait of quality within his or her followers. This includes understanding the importance of quality, what constitutes quality (even when appearances change), how quality is measured, and the inter-relational aspect of quality across all aspects of that individual’s life, drawing analogies between widgets and life events.
In essence, the human-driven manager doesn’t just produce a quality widget: they facilitate quality-minded character. The concept of “quality” is just one of many examples. Substitute “safety”, “timeliness”, “productivity”, and “awareness”, among many others. The strategy remains the same, even though the process may differ.
Not only would you produce better widgets throughout more changes, but the knowledge and wisdom gained from this type of leadership spills over into all other aspects of life, both inside and outside the organization. The benefits to the organization and everyone in it are too numerous to mention. Everyone wants to live a better life, and the results they obtain through a human-driven leader will command loyalty, drive, initiative and, most importantly, greater productivity.
So if it’s so simple, why aren’t more people doing it? Great leadership first comes from great character. Many don’t take the time to learn this road less traveled, which is why there are so few great leaders in the world. Instead, they are too consumed with operations, all while wondering why things don’t get better.
Coach K installs the character traits of teamwork, attentiveness, unselfishness, poise, and industriousness through both the X’s and O’s he teaches on a basketball court, and through the parallels he draws between the court and their lives. Those lessons bear fruit no matter where his players are, whether in dormitory living, their academic careers, their finances, their relationships with their professors and classmates, or in handling the spotlight of alumni, fans, and associated press coverage.
My friend does the same thing, even though he doesn’t coach basketball. My friend utilizes a yearly leadership conference to introduce the character qualities necessary, not just for successful leaders, but for those who interact with customers. The peace of mind that comes with knowing that your employees can be trusted to take care of your customers is a nice benefit.
Both men reap operational excellence because they know their true business.