Leadership Matters

May 4, 2023

by John O. Burdett

The higher in the organisation a leader is, the more intense the spotlight. And even then, among the many assumed attributes of leadership, some things stand out.

Living the Organisation’s Values

Leadership isn’t simply living the values – it’s being the values. It’s also challenging those who don’t.

If you want to disillusion young talent in the organisation, if you want to destroy the credibility of the cultural message – allow those in key roles who don’t live the organisation’s values to continue acting that way. If you want the grapevine to be dominated by the message that working without enthusiasm is the acceptable norm, ensure that your values amount to little more than website window dressing.

In turbulent times, organisations make their values central to everything they do. Rumour, stories, metaphors, rituals, humour, symbolic acts, teamwork, perceived fairness, how leaders respond to crisis represent the “soil” from which the grapevine – positive or negative – takes nourishment.

When leadership behaviour amplifies the (right) organisation’s values, negative rumours cannot put down roots. When employees know (really know) what the organisation stands for, then inappropriate gossip has little to feed on. And when caring, consistency and respect are a way of organisational life, then those who habitually draw attention to themselves by describing the glass as half empty are robbed of an audience. If ever there was a time to confront those who don’t live the organisation’s values, that time is now.

Speed of Learning

No less important is the reality that if the marketplace is changing faster than how quickly the organisation learns, long-term success is a pipe dream. For that reason, both within the formal and informal organisation, a successful leader, as and when the opportunity presents itself, is quick to reinforce what tomorrow’s customer wants to buy and how they want to buy it.

Management myopia – continuously pushing for improvement without introducing the customer into the equation – gives license to the cynics to distort even the best of intentions. The topic that brings candour to chatter, that introduces direction to the discourse, that informs the informal organisation is “the customer.” Leaders who interface directly with the marketplace bring the customer to the conversation quite naturally. Leaders in purely supportive roles don’t. They should.

To Lead is to Care

It is believed that, so called, “mirror neurons” drive us to subconsciously “ape” the behaviour of those we interact with. This need to fit into “the community” is a programmed, survival response. The result? How those who lead teams behave makes a difference. If leaders don’t care for the people in the organisation it’s naïve, in the extreme, to think that those same people would care about the organisation.

To lead in today’s turbulence is to care. To care about how a new team member lands. To care enough to override the accepted wisdom that the most successful individual on the team wouldn’t benefit from coaching. To care about how a remote employee with a young child and a sick parent gets through the day. Above all else, to care enough to tune into the noise, nuisance and negativity that, if you take the time to listen, shapes the informal organisation – and with it the wider culture.

What gives caring wings – especially in tough times – is a leader who inspires. When the road is uncertain, the forest gets deeper and the trees seem bigger, the leader’s role is to breathe new life and vitality into the organisation. COVID proved that.

Inspirational Leadership

Leaders inspire when positional power and personal gain give way to a compelling purpose; when the strategy is accompanied by language and imagery that is so rich that it brings tomorrow’s success to life today; when the specific outcomes demanded are reinforced by a deep belief that they will happen; and when the leader displays a passion to learn.

Inspiration is made accessible – it thrives in the day to day – when the leader displays humility. To lead in changing times is to recognise that you are a work in progress. Delivering on any and every promise, humility and caring are, ultimately, how leaders win trust.

The response to a grapevine that is running wild is inspirational leadership. In tough times people want to be inspired, they need to be inspired, and when they are, today’s concerns start to look a lot like tomorrow’s opportunities. If the leaders you currently have in key roles don’t deliver inspirational leadership, replace them with those who will.

Power moves into a vacuum. When those with formal authority appear to lack leadership, the grapevine will work to fill the void. True as a general statement, this is especially the case when unpredictable disruption, disquiet with the purpose and doubt about the organisation’s direction enter the picture.

Having spent most of my working life as an international HR executive, the conversation following the separation of a leader who was going in a different direction to the organisation always seemed to conclude with the same comment. “We should have acted on this sooner.”

This article is an extract from “The Other Culture: Cultivate The Grapevine“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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