Portal Message: Great Leadership

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Great leadership, just perhaps, is proven by doing precisely nothing. Put another way, every time that you have to provide strict instructions to someone, that is evidence of a failure of leadership somewhere. That is, either you screwed up or they did, and if you have surrounded yourself with strong people, that should happen rarely.

If that is right – just give me a minute here – then a lot of what we read and are taught about leadership is suspect.

Intro: Several months ago, we interviewed several Learning and Development consultants in order to choose one to help us develop EllisDon’s own Leadership Development programs. Right from the start, it didn’t feel right (and it wasn’t just the enormous fees they wanted). It was because the entire pitch was about identifying the (relatively few) people in the company who would go into leadership positions, and then giving them a lot of attention so they would know what to do and how to behave in order to lead everyone else. In my humble view, that's all wrong. They kept asking how many leaders we were talking about training. I kept responding: About a thousand.

Argument: I believe fervently that people, for the most part, can lead themselves. It is a constant, internal struggle for each of us; every day, but most of us master it. Just to be clear: We all need skills training; we need to keep improving our skills and developing new ones throughout our lives. Leaders do need to provide a clear context: the goals, the 'why', the strategy, the values. But if you, as a leader (or as a capable individual within a group of capable individuals), have done everything possible to surround yourself with people with the right skills and the right values, then what is there for you to do, really, except to follow through on your promises?

There is this: You can help people. You can mentor them unselfishly, give them a perspective they have not seen, show them how to acquire the skills they do not yet have. Don’t order people around, rather explain things carefully, and then obtain the commitments you require.

You can and must give people (including your boss) positive, constructive, frequent feedback: suggest a bit of this, a dose of that, tell them what worked for you.

Some old guy gave me this advice some time ago: Try not to tell people what to do (that’s the failure outlined above). Try to avoid telling them how to do it, unless they ask (they usually know, or can figure it out if you let them). Tell them instead why it needs to be done – completely, the whole picture - because that is usually the disconnect. Once they get that, you usually can’t hold them back; that is all the information they need. If information is power, now they are on the inside, as powerful as you. (If they can't deliver, it's an issue of skills or values.)

Conclusion: We did not hire a consultant, and I am not interested in focusing on 50 ‘leaders’ (among the 1200 people building their careers at EllisDon) who will lead the rest of us. We can and will all lead ourselves, thank you very much, and we will build a great company together. We will all accept help and a broader perspective whenever we can. We will all continue to improve our skills and learn new ones, especially in this fast changing world. Hopefully, every one of us will help and provide feedback to anyone - from the coop student to the CEO - who wants to benefit from it.

I believe that you are (mainly) surrounded by capable people – the EllisDon people, the consultants and the subs. They can lead themselves, just give them the information they need, and hold them to their promises. Just make sure you keep yours.

(By the way, I know that I often tell people what to do; we all do it. The key is to recognize that when the need to do that arises, it is often your failure, not theirs. Look in the mirror first, then take the necessary steps.)

And of course, I am happy to get feedback on all this (preferably after the new year) so feel free to let loose. Have a great holiday, a great 2009.