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The man in front is the first to get shot

The concept of “leadership” is something of a foundational principal in business circles. People within a company look to be seen as a leader in order to help advance their career. Companies look to be “leaders” of their market as a way to amass profit. Politicians seek to be leaders of movements. Military officers to be leaders of men.

Organisations talk a lot about leadership. Quite rightly, as without it organisations get submerged in the trivial many (usually encapsulated on the latest slide-deck) instead of staying super-focused on the vital few. However, leadership is not something which can be rolled out at a conference. Leadership is not a job title. Leadership is not something which dictates who pays for the lattes at Starbucks. Leadership is a mindset. It is doing what is necessary. Aged 24 or 42. Liked or disliked. It is identifying appropriate actions. It is owning the consequences of those actions. It is striding through the melodrama about the broken espresso machine. It is saying this is not a management model, guys: this is a real life business with customers and employees dependent upon us. That’s leadership.?

via Nicholas Bate

In my time following Mr. Bate’s blog, I’ve never found him to be overly verbose. But what he lacks in verbosity he makes up for in thought provocation.

What is Nicholas saying here? I believe he is reminding us that leadership requires fortitude. It requires determination. It requires looking past the details to see the goal, and once that goal is visible, pushing towards that goal without letting the details derail the vision. All projects can get sidetracked. Schedules are harder to coordinate than we thought, funding isn’t as available as we had hoped, Bill and Nancy are arguing about the right color for the brochures, if we don’t submit something by friday we’ll lose our ad space in this month’s issue…

While each of those are important pieces of the puzzle, they are the trivial details. Each must retain it’s subordinate position to the goal. If a meeting time can’t be set then we will decide over email, money will be located or we will find a cheaper way to do it, a color will be chosen even if it upsets one of the stakeholders, if the ad doesn’t look right it doesn’t go out, no matter what…

Each of those details exists only because of the vision, they have no intrinsic value of their own. If they support the vision they are valuable, if they don’t support the vision they are unnecessary. Once we have stripped out the unnecessary and all that remains is necessary, they must be solved, otherwise they put the goal at risk. In order to succeed, the larger goal cannot be held hostage by the details. They must either be worked out, or worked around.

Not only does leadership require fortitude, but also a willingness to accept risk. Doing what is “necessary” requires defining what is necessary, and defining what is necessary is intrinsically risky. It invites debate, and it invites review, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

This process is inevitable and important. Without proper up front vetting substandard ideas could end up taking precedence over better concepts. Without a review, critical opportunities for personal and professional improvement would be missed. Throughout the entire process, the “leader” will be judged, critiqued, and criticized. Sometimes fairly, and sometimes unfairly.

Leadership is hard work.

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