How to Develop the Fundamentals of Leadership

Posted: May 1, 2008 in Professional Development

In my recent teaching and speaking activities, I’ve noticed that many managers struggle with what I believe to be the fundamentals of leadership. I find that too much writing and teaching about leadership is focused on intangibles and high-level skills. This emphasis on the moral components of leadership is necessary, especially at the higher levels of skill and experience, but it doesn’t help a beginner to practise leadership on a day-to-day basis.

My views on this matter have been coloured by over 25 years as an officer in the Canadian Army. Much of what I’ve seen in terms of leadership since my retirement from the military in May of 2006 has confirmed these beliefs. Simply put, there is too much emphasis on psychology and leadership philosophy, and not enough emphasis on nuts and bolts issues.

How should a manager act with an employee who has personal problems? What should a leader do about followers who have a poor work ethic? How should an executive run a meeting? How do you give direction and guidance to peers and subordinates? These are all questions that psychological tests and great theories about the supreme leader’s vision don’t answer.

When I first started my military career, I was an officer cadet. The first things we were taught about leadership were highly practical and had almost no psychological or philosophical content. The military believes that any moral, well educated, and reasonably intelligent young person can be taught the rudiments of leadership practice and then moulded through employment, experience, further training and education and, most of all, coaching and mentoring.

However, the military doesn’t start the teaching with high-flying principles and theories. Young officers learn the technical rudiments of their occupation, but there is also much emphasis placed on mundane managerial tasks. Thus, the officer cadet learns how to follow orders, how to give orders (much more structured than you can imagine), how to plan his or her time, and that of followers, how to plan and run a meeting, how to solve simple procedural tasks, how to plan and conduct a lesson, how to speak in public, and finally, how to correct small mistakes or miscues by subordinates.

Throughout this training, the young officer is drilled to be technically competent and to follow set procedures. It may not be glamorous, but it works. It ensures uniformity in execution and instils a common pattern of action and decision-making. The military teaches that the young officer must be energetic and competent and, most important, must set an example for all to follow. Thus, the young officer’s leadership is based as much on technical competence to do his or her job as on the more ethereal and charismatic aspects. The belief is that, with practical experience and through coaching and mentoring, the officer will develop the people skills and the charisma to lead in difficult and demanding situations.

Apparently small things, such as how to make a simple decision, how to make a plan, how to disseminate more or less detailed orders to subordinates, and how to manage time judiciously, all of these things are treated as critical to the initial success and effectiveness of the young or inexperienced leader.

Compare that to most of what passes for leadership training and education in the corporate and organizational worlds. In many cases, the cart is put before the horse. Managers and even senior executives are placed in leadership positions because of technical proficiency and/or educational attainment, but they don’t have the rudiments of how to run an organization or team, or even how to direct and advise subordinates. There are endless meetings that run on for too long, too much consultation, and a generalized fear of upsetting superiors, peers, and subordinates.

It is my contention that the process of grooming and educating managers and executives for organizational leadership can be made much more systematic and effective. I also propose that the military’s way of doing this can provide a model. The stakes are completely different, but the wisdom inherent in the military’s methods is highly transferable.

For instance, a company could institute a training program that would teach and instil basic managerial skills such as running meetings, basic written and oral communications, basic supervisory skills, decision-making and planning. Moving up the hierarchy, the focus would become more educational and would include an ethical and psychological component. This wouldn’t meet all of an organization’s developmental needs, but it would provide a framework upon which to build an experiential component centred on varied employment, as well as targeted mentoring and coaching.

In all of this, it is critical to understand that 80 % of a leader’s credibility and charisma comes from technical competence and the ability to carry out basic managerial tasks. While most people in an organization want visionary leadership, the reality is that many leaders disqualify themselves almost immediately because they drive subordinates crazy with their inability to do the basics of time management, written and oral communications, decision-making, planning and direction.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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