Competent to Great Leadership

There seems to be an unspoken mission on twitter for redefining words through the tactic of persistently using the word when the author is obviously describing something with a different meaning to that word. Most of this redefining game seems to be focused on the role of leadership in the workplace, but there are probably other examples if you care to look for them. What the long-term aim is, other than trying to create angst in the lexicography community, is a mystery. However, with the tenacity being demonstrated, it’s clear that something is afoot.

So far the plan appears to be a group of people taking the concept of Leadership and providing descriptions of people doing the basic things that people should be doing when they are in a position of leadership. The descriptions of competent leadership are useful reminders of the responsibilities that leaders have once they accept that title. The outlines provided of the basic qualities that a leader should demonstrate in their day-to-day role in that position are clear, grounded in good ideas and they provide a degree of practicality so that someone reading the ideas might be able to do more of a specific thing to ensure they’re doing the basics with sufficient discipline and focus.

Here’s the sneaky part. All of the authors of these good bits of advice are then looking to pass this competent delivery of leadership basics off as “REMARKABLE” or “GREAT” Leadership. Their hyperbole is relentless and it really does seem that they would like the words they’re using to be redefined as “Competent”. Their use of the words are the equivalent to the following:

  • Great Tennis Players serve the ball accurately into the correct service box.
  • Remarkable Musicians play in time and all of the notes in the correct order.
  • Great Pilots fly safely and skilfully to the correct destination.
  • Remarkable Coaches help their teams practice so that they improve.
  • Great Construction workers produce buildings that are fit for purpose.

If their quest for changing the meaning of these words is successful, the whole area of leadership is going to become a mass experiment in what happens when everyone experiences the Dunning-Kruger Effect together, or the entire business world being populated with a delusional belief system akin to living in a never ending series of The Apprentice.

It’s distinctly possible that this desire to hyperbolise basic leadership qualities is a protection mechanism against having to tell someone they’re just not competent. “Look, you need to be a remarkable leader, but you’re not there yet and here’s some things you need to do to be remarkable.” = you’re not demonstrating the basic level of competence required by someone who accepted the responsibility of being a leader. As well intended as that approach might be, it’s just another example of why organisations will never become high performance organisations – because they’re not serious about challenging and supporting their performers to be superb at the basics. They’re more worried about having to keep people HR Happy rather than High Performance Happy and in the mean time, a competitor who is serious about performance is supporting leaders to be brilliant at the basics and challenging or removing those who are not. For the leaders in those high performing businesses who are great or remarkable, then that is because they understand that these reputations come from achieving the following:

  • being relentless in the quality and consistency of core leadership behaviours that are demonstrated
  • persisting with taking the right leadership actions in the right way, for the good of performance, regardless of the nature of the challenge being faced
  • constantly managing personal time and preparation so that they have the intelligence, energy, skill and perspective to lead with conviction
  • repeatedly being curious about how they can lead with equal or greater effect for different people and in different scenarios
  • obsessively using time and energy to ensure that a culture of confidence, choice/control and connectedness is created, maintained and exploited
  • consistently role modelling the performance quality of knowing and leading with your strengths

The Great or Remarkable title comes from the manner in which the basic competencies of leadership are carried out: persistence, discipline, consistency, determination and with a clear knowledge of the value and importance of the role. We’ve talked for a long time about high level performance, in any form of performance, being described as consistent, sustained high level execution. It has to be all of those things and when a performance is delivered in that way, then someone’s reputation rightly gets elevated to a rarefied and perhaps remark-able (worthy of remark) level.

Someone who produces the right leadership behaviours pretty well, most of the time and for a sufficient length of time is probably safe in their job, but they are not remarkable, yet. They might be if they can alter the profile to excellently, all of the time and as a way of being. If we are to have these truly stand-out leaders, then we need to have something for them to stand-out from. We need good leaders, average leaders and poor leaders and anyone who is willing to take on the responsibilities that come with accepting the title of leader needs to know where they fit in the distribution of talent for this particular role. Simply skewing the curve to the remarkable so as not to offend the incompetent is choosing to perpetuate a culture of mediocrity and therefore wilful underperformance.

So, let’s not let this insipid march to hyperbolised leadership continue! #stillnotremarkable or #justcompetent