Clarity requires uncluttering the work environment to eliminate confusion. This goes beyond planning and prioritization to the actual elimination of certain tasks from the scope of employees’ job assignments if possible. I realize that making this type of decision is difficult for many people to accept—more almost always seems to be better than less—but it is something that I found was necessary when I was an independent entrepreneur. I learned how to judge the amount of work I could handle successfully, and I learned the more difficult lesson of turning down work because I knew that taking it on would ultimately be detrimental not only to my business but to my customers. By limiting the volume of work that my firm could take on at any given time, I did a better job, my business’s reputation was enhanced, and I gained respect in my field. Firms that took on all proffered jobs without exercising similar judgment found themselves buried under unmanageable workloads, performed the work poorly, and suffered the subsequent damage to their reputations and a drop in repeat business. Knowing how and when to say no is an important key to success.
Most workplaces need leadership more than management. Management is the requisite application of pressure in order to force the accomplishment of a task. Leadership, on the other hand, involves planning and prioritization, both of which are dependent on a vision that begins by creating the proper scope of any staff’s duties within the members’ individual positions. A genuine leader positively infects the staff with his or her vision to accomplish the mission and goals of the organization, thus causing buy-in to that mission by the members of the staff. The organization’s staff then actively seeks to accomplish that which the leader has envisioned.
The organization’s mission should drive and support all of its members’ actions, but in the absence of a clearly articulated mission, it is difficult to communicate this vision to the staff and even more difficult to inspire the staff or to create the buy-in factor necessary to advanced accomplishment in the workplace.
Plan, Prioritize, and Simplify
Another function of leadership involves simplifying tasks, missions, goals, and expectations in order to manage accomplishment. Leadership is where planning should be initiated. Careful, linear examination is necessary in order to effectively plan for the accomplishment of tasks and prioritize the work that must be done.
One of many viable options for planning and prioritization is found in a system called kanban, which requires no more than space on a wall and readily available office supplies like post-it notes and sharpies. It can provide a simple solution to the complex problem of managing conflicting workloads, time pressures, and expectations. Using this system, prioritization of tasks includes weighing the work at hand and judging what needs to be done sooner and what could be done later—a vastly superior system to expectations found in many workplaces that everything must be accomplished simultaneously and immediately. Simplicity could gracefully lead to effective planning and prioritization. This is certainly not a perfect solution; indeed, I’m not certain that a perfect solution exists. But it is budget-friendly and easily understood, can be implemented quickly, and represents a good way to begin the task of planning and prioritization in a complex work environment.
The leader of any organization must commit to, exhibit, and exemplify the organization’s mission, vision, and core values. By sharing this mission in a way that inspires employee buy-in, and by providing for reasonable planning and prioritization, the leader creates an atmosphere of trust that results in accomplishment. If the leader is committed to this blueprint for leadership as well as being committed to the mission, vision, and core values of the organization, the employees will naturally share in that commitment, resulting in the organization’s success.
Growth proceeds naturally from high-quality leadership. Well-led organizations are dynamic, a quality that prevents the organization from becoming stale and static, thus encouraging the accomplishment and professional growth of the staff and advancement of the organization’s mission, vision and core values. As I mentioned earlier, though, growth must be tempered by realism. It is not enough to simply take on more and more and more work—the organization must possess the ability to do the work undertaken, to be certain of their capabilities and resources, and to make growth decisions with deliberation, wisdom, and foresight; to be poised to take advantage of emerging opportunities decisively, but to weigh those decisions wisely rather than acting indiscriminately.
In addition to the characteristics of leadership already mentioned, a good leader is a steward of the staff as well as of the organization (or other organizational entity) under his or her leadership. Stewardship means accepting responsibility for that which has been entrusted and to administer that trust responsibly and effectively. A steward recognizes the trust that others have placed upon him or her and seeks to guide rather than mandate in order not to violate that trust. It is the difference between asking others to follow willingly and ordering them to comply. A steward exhibits care and concern for the persons and properties under his or her supervision, not because of personal feelings (although these may also exist) but because caring for persons and properties ensures that they will remain able to contribute to the organization’s success. A steward provides guidance and encouragement, serves as a resource, and engenders trust by demonstrating trustworthiness.
I believe that genuine listening is another hallmark of leadership. Others may look to the leader to have all the answers or to be the person who finds solutions to pressing problems, and this is often true. The leader, however, should possess enough humility to know that he or she does not, in fact, have all the answers. A leader will recognize that the people on his or her team also possess the expertise and the ability to generate novel solutions to complex problems, to think of new ideas, and to share the wisdom that they might have but that the leader may not. Someone who thinks he or she knows everything cannot also be an effective listener. Especially as an organization grows, the leader must interact more and more with people on the outside of the organization, so listening to team members, respecting their knowledge and expertise, and relying on them to handle things when the leader is pulled away, is a powerful demonstration of professional trust.
Listening to those outside of the organization is also a characteristic of leadership. Again, humility plays a large role. A good leader will listen to the stories, information, and feedback that others have to share and is open to the possibility that these can be personally or organizationally transformative. Instead of seeing others as lacking the wisdom that we, as leaders, should impart unto them, we view them as sources of potential wisdom, new ideas, or fresh perspectives. Both inside and outside of our organizations, receptive listening is an important key in building relationships. Listening builds trust, and trust is the foundation of relationships. This is true between the leader and his or her employees, and it is also true between the leader and those outside of the organization.
Listening, of course, should be paired with respectful communication. Not every idea that someone chooses to share with the leader can or should be acted upon. If the leader listens with an open mind and considers the idea carefully (even if he or she has reached a quick decision not to act on it) responding in a way that validates the person who has shared the idea and lets him or her know that the effort was appreciated can make a tremendous difference in morale.
The greatest obligation in any organization falls upon the leader, because all of these characteristics and responsibilities must be continuously repeated on a daily basis. There must be consistency, which then cuts down on or eliminates confusion. The speed at which tasks are accomplished matters very little if the tasks are not done well; the volume of tasks accomplished is similarly valueless if the tasks are done poorly. If employees are frustrated, resentful, overwhelmed, overtaxed, exhausted, or discouraged as the direct result of inconsistent leadership, they will not function effectively in the workplace. The organization’s mission, vision, and core values should not change from day to day, nor should the leader’s expectations for employees or personal comportments. When employees enter the workplace each day, it should be with a sense of security in knowing what they must do, how they should do it, and what they can expect from the administration. Consistency engenders trust, which enhances performance.
Adapt and Change
Consistency is not incompatible with change. Any organization must be able to adapt within reason when vision and mission lead to accomplishment, and accomplishment provides the opportunity for reflection, and through reflection needs, mistakes, and successes are identified. Good leadership responds to these emerging revelations, leading the staff to adapt and change in order to meet new challenges, respond to or rectify identified errors, and build upon demonstrated success.
Solutions can be found for the issues faced by many organizations, but these sometimes require a change in the basic operating model of the organization from a climate of autocratic management to that of genuine leadership. This may well require radical change and perhaps re-organization and restructuring of work in its present form. Change is difficult and rarely pleases all stakeholders. It is, however, sometimes necessary in order to achieve long-term goals or rectify longstanding problems.
Change is not insurmountable, especially when employees and administrators share in the same vision. By working together, resisting the temptation to revert to old habits, keeping realistic expectations, open minds, and a willingness to engage in the process to come, it’s possible to move forward in order to contribute something valuable to the world.
The key to change, indeed, the pivot upon which success and failure balance, is leadership. A successful leader will demonstrate these qualities and characteristics, exercising stewardship, remaining consistent, promoting the organization’s mission, vision, and core values, providing clarity, and effectively planning, prioritizing, and simplifying the tasks that must be accomplished. It is a tall order, to be sure, and not every administrator or manager is able to take on this kind of challenge. When such a person does take up the mantle of responsibility, however, amazing things can happen.