Why leaders don’t live up to their potential

Why leaders don't live up to their potential

The great majority of people we work with are well-intentioned, accomplished individuals. Many progress and fulfil their ambitions. But too many fail to live up to their potential. Why? Because they stop working on themselves.

It doesn’t help that a majority of the organisations we see offer their managers minimal support and rarely press the experienced ones to improve. Few expect more of their leaders than short-term results.

In our experience, however, the real culprit is a lack of understanding. When bosses are questioned, it’s clear that many of them have stopped making progress because they simply don’t know how to.

Becoming a great boss is a lengthy, difficult process of learning and change, driven mostly by personal experience. What makes the journey especially arduous is that the lessons involved cannot be taught. You and every other manager must learn them yourself.

To deal with the chaos of each workday, you need a clear sense of what’s important and where you and your group want to be in the future. This way of thinking begins with a straightforward definition: management is responsibility for the performance of a group of people.

It’s a simple idea, yet putting it into practice is difficult because management is defined by responsibility, but done by exerting influence. To influence others you must make a difference not only in what they do but also in the thoughts and feelings that drive their actions. How do you do this?

You need an overarching, integrated way of thinking about your work as a manager. We offer an approach based on studies of management practice, our own observations and our knowledge of where managers tend to go wrong. We call it the three imperatives: Manage yourself. Manage your network. Manage your team.

Manage yourself

Management begins with you, because who you are as a person and how you connect with others matters to the people you must influence. Every day those people examine every interaction with you to uncover your intentions. How hard they work will depend in large part on the qualities they see in you. And their perceptions will determine the answer to this fundamental question every manager must ask: am I someone who can influence others productively?

If productive influence doesn’t arise from being liked or from fear, where does it come from? It comes from people’s trust in you as a manager. That trust has two components: belief in your competence (you know what to do and how to do it) and belief in your character (your motives are good and you want your people to do well).

Manage your network

Many managers resist the need to operate effectively in their organisations’ political environments. They consider politics dysfunctional and don’t realise that it unavoidably arises from three features inherent in all organisations: division of labour, which creates disparate groups with disparate and even conflicting priorities; interdependence, which means that none of those groups can do their work without the others; and scarce resources, for which groups necessarily compete. Obviously, some organisations handle politics better than others, but conflict and competition among groups is inevitable. How does that get resolved? Through organisational influence. Groups whose managers have influence tend to get what they need; other groups don’t.

Unfortunately, many managers deal with conflict by trying to avoid it. But effective managers know they cannot turn away. Instead, they proactively engage the organisation to create the conditions for their success. They build and nurture a broad network of ongoing relationships with those they need and those who need them; that is how they influence people over whom they have no formal authority.

Manage your team

Too many managers overlook the possibilities of creating a real team and managing their people as a whole. They don’t realise that they can influence individual behaviour much more effectively through the group, because most of us are social creatures who want to be accepted as part of the team. To do collective work that requires varied skills and experience, teams are more productive than groups of individuals who merely co-operate. In a real team, members hold themselves and one another jointly accountable. A clear and compelling purpose, and concrete goals based on that purpose, are critical. Without them no group will coalesce into a real team.

Team culture is equally important. Members need to know what’s required of them collectively and individually; what the team’s values and standards are; how members are expected to work together; and how they should communicate. It’s your job to make sure they have this crucial knowledge.

What you can do right now

You won’t make progress unless you consciously act. Set personal goals. Take advantage of company training programs. Create a network of trusted advisers. Use your strengths to seek out developmental experiences. We know you’ve heard all this advice before, and it is good advice. But what we find most effective is building the learning into your daily work.

For this purpose we offer a simple approach we call prep, do, review.

PREP. Begin each morning with a preview of the day’s events. For each one, ask yourself how you can use it to develop as a manager and in particular how you can work on your specific learning goals. Consider delegating a task you would normally take on yourself and think about how you might do that – to whom, what questions you should ask, what boundaries you should set, what preliminary coaching you might provide.

DO. Take whatever action is required in your daily work, and as you do, use the new and different approaches you planned. Don’t lose your resolve. For example, if you tend to cut off conflict in a meeting, even constructive conflict, force yourself to hold back so that disagreement can be worked through.

REVIEW. After the action, examine what you did and how it turned out. This is where learning actually occurs. Reflection is critical, and it works best if you make it a regular practice. For example, set aside time toward the end of each day – perhaps on your commute home.

If you still need to make progress on your journey, that should spur you to action, not discourage you. You can become what you want and need to be. But you must take personal responsibility for mastering the three imperatives and assessing where you are now.

Linda A Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Kent Lineback spent many years as a manager and an executive in business and government. They are the co-authors of ‘Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader’ from which this article is adapted.


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