What makes the difference?

Whether in education, public services, professional sport or private business, organisations are all facing remarkably similar challenges. For some it will be financial pressures, for others it will be the growing need to improve outcomes/output and for most – the need to create something different, something new and something fresh! For many it will likely be a mixture of all the aforementioned, but whatever the sector or the need, everybody is looking for the one thing that will help to develop, grow and improve the current level of performance. I believe ‘that thing’ is leadership.

For the last two decades there has been exponential growth in the field of leadership; a simple Google search on the topic of ‘leadership books’ produces a staggering 188,000,000 hits. I believe, therefore, that it would be fair to suggest that just thinking about this thing called leadership, could be more than a little overwhelming. However, being a fan of the KISS principle – Keep It Stupidly Simple (or Keep It Simple Stupid…depending on how derogatory you choose to be) – I believe it possible to break leadership down to it’s basics and then use these elements to deal with the latest and greatest of challenges.

I was once asked “Drew, you find it so easy to understand what this leadership thing is. So can you just simplify it down for me?” I took the bait, hook line and sinker and came out with the following three-word response, leadership is: people, vision and sell. Whilst it was a relatively quick response, it has come from many years of reading and observing great leadership and, in all honesty, some not so great leadership.

The basis for this perspective all starts with people. At the start of my own, relatively short leadership journey to date, I was taught to see that ‘people make the difference’. This may be obvious and perhaps even boarder on being twee, but it does hold true. When we consider anything that was or is significant you can be pretty sure that it was originally conceived, produced, and developed by a person. Think about a great speech, a great invention or a great world movement; all will have come from a person. People are truly brilliant and leaders must make the most of the people they have the privilege to lead (that statement itself could be the topic of another blog!)

The second word vision is all about what we do with the people we lead. Napoleon taught us that “Leaders are dealers in hope”. The vision for an individual, team or organisation is fundamental in creating a view of the future that is optimistic and something to drive toward. To achieve anything worthwhile we have to develop a belief mechanism that aspires to something more than average and ‘paints a picture of the future’ (Ken Blanchard and Jesse Stoner). It must excite, energise and enthuse people. Visions will give us direction and purpose but they are also crucial in generating, fostering and galvanising a team spirit and culture. If led correctly, this is where the power in any successful outcome is generated, and if the people are part of creating the vision, then we see the very highest levels of both purpose and performance. As the late and great Steve Jobs said:
“If you are working on something you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed – the vision pulls you.”

The third and final element is the sell. Daniel H. Pink wrote a brilliant book ‘To Sell is Human’ where he reported that 40% of our working lives is spent selling ideas, concepts and ways of operating to others. We have had to say a fond farewell to the industrial age – the old management style of hierarchically instructing people and micromanaging every task and activity; It’s a dark and distant part of the organisational past…or so we would hope! The successful modern leader who understands the modern workforce, will spend time selling ideas and ways of working to people which have numerous benefits. These include greater employee understanding of the organisation and improved individual empowerment creating ‘flow’ experiences. This is rapidly becoming one of the sharpest and most powerful tools in the leaders toolbox.

To truly make the difference in todays world, It is on these three elements that the foundations of leadership are built – people, vision and sell. As with all mindsets and ways of working, there will be effective and less effective ways of employing this methodology in practice. ‘How’ we work with people, towards a compelling vision and sell them better ways of thinking and operating can be very different and a ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work either – the devil really is the detail. However, truly embracing these ideas, in this modern market, with our modern workforce will not only deliver the right results, but it will make the journey so much more enjoyable and engaging. We all want to be part of something unique, something special and something worthwhile – the leader’s role is make this become a reality…this really is how we can truly make the difference.