Are organisations setting the bar too low for what constitutes a “good leader”?

What would your expectations be for a talk on leadership pitched to middle and senior management? Especially one discussing such an important topic as the development of staff and increasing the uptake of career progression for those from under-represented groups?


Needless to say when I attended a recent seminar on this exact issue I was hopeful for some deep and considered conversations that went beyond the obvious and tackled the root of the issue. Sadly, I was disappointed.


Where I fell out with this particular presentation was how basic it was. Do we really need to tell middle to senior management that it is a necessity to have 1-1s with your staff? That you should be aware of who has potential, who needs development and be willing to have challenging conversations?


I sat there, slightly dumbfounded, thinking, “if people in this audience don’t know that these elements are parts of their role as a (basic) manager let alone a leader, then what sorry state are we in?”


Now, in fairness to the presenters, the content was caveated by a phrase of “we know there is a line manager lottery”, which was their argument for covering off (in my opinion) primitive concepts.


This argument did not quell my overall frustration. I became annoyed that instead of elevating the discussion to what it was to be a good leader, we were rather lowering it to the bottom denominator in the room – how to be a basic manager.


Now, there is a valid argument in that you’re only as fast as your slowest part, so when trying to enact organisational change we have to either remove or enhance the limiting factors. In this scenario, our slowest parts are our leaders/managers that aren’t following the basics.


But do we really want to lower our standards in these conversations? Should we be having to teach basics to middle and senior leaders? Surely not. For a newly promoted team leader these foundational concepts are crucial. But for individuals with multiple years experience leading a variety of teams and departments should this type of basic instruction even be on the table?


In discussing leadership, should we be discussing management?


In my opinion, “managing” your team HAS to involve 1-1 engagements, an understanding of the team’s strengths/weaknesses and difficult conversations. I do not see this as “leadership” because you can have all of those “processes” without any inspirational or aspirational qualities to them (which is what I believe true leadership to be). 


Good manager, terrible leader


Many moons ago I had a line manager who was what we would call “a safe pair of hands”. They managed risk well, allocated work effectively, understood the strengths and weaknesses of the team and ensured they held monthly 1-1s with everyone. They were by all accounts a good manager. But they were a terrible leader.


Why were they a terrible leader when it sounds like they were doing their job reasonably well?


  1. No emotional awareness.
  2. Limited to zero charisma.
  3. They lacked creativity and big picture thinking.
  4. They had no self-awareness.
  5. They had an ego.


Now, they weren’t a bad person or a bad manager. They just weren’t a good leader. So whilst the job got done, did they truly get the best out of the team? Probably not. The team functioned to a reasonable standard but we were never going to set the world on fire. What was missing was inspirational leadership and an aspiration to chase excellence.


How bad leadership can often look like great management


A good leader is someone who can rally the troops, breed enthusiasm for change and innovation, can quickly identify the mood of a situation and adjust their tonality and style to be effective, and perhaps most importantly; knows they are the LEAST important person in the room.


Good leaders understand that leadership is nothing to do with them and everything to do with the people they are serving, because without followers, you are not a leader.


Too often I have seen senior “leaders” preoccupied with their own status and ego. Their focus is on presenting themselves in a particular fashion, ensuring the output their team produces fairs favourably on them as opposed to any other factor. These individuals have the trimmings of “good management” in so much as they tick the boxes of getting staff to work, get results (at whatever cost) and present awareness of strategic aims. However, ultimately their leadership is shallow because it lacks the depth of authenticity and is anything but inspirational.


I believe this type of leadership is perhaps the most dangerous. It presents itself to the casual observer that the job is getting done and results are reasonable. What it is hiding is an unhappy workforce, distrust and a poor culture.


This begs the question as to what is more important, good management or good leadership? The reality is you need both. A boring answer I know.


However, I believe part of the issue in organisations is that we have lowered the bar as to what is a “good leader”. We have become focused on ensuring processes are followed, paying lip service to staff engagement, and heralding basic management skills as “great leadership”. There is insufficient focus on developing emotional intelligence, the ability to influence and negotiate effectively, and how to switch seamlessly between coach, mentor, guide and dictator (transactional leadership is still a necessity on occasion).


The solution


If we are to tackle such challenging issues as improving representation across C-suites we need to lift our expectations of leaders. It is not enough to simply “manage” your staff effectively. Management only gets you so far. Its gets some of the work done. It does little to inspire and motivate.


Raising the standard of what it is to be a good leader is crucial and that means improving the messages we deliver in seminars, training and day to day operations.


The point of this post is to encourage those with whom the power lies to stop standing in the shallow end of problems. It is far easier to measure processes and management than it is quality leadership. But if you truly want to impact your organisation for the better you cannot rely on quick fixes, over-used leadership platitudes and tired training inputs. No organisation has ever had performance issues when the culture has been on point and how do you generate that culture? You have actual high quality leaders, who don’t need to be told to do the basics but instead seek out inventive and contemporary solutions.


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