A newly-promoted manager asked if I could recommend a few books on leadership. I knew he already had a decent sized leadership library, yet he wanted more, which is good. His simple request got me thinking. Leadership as a concept is vague and difficult to pin down. No wonder thousands of books and articles have been written on leadership, yet we still don't know what it is!
Knowledge and Systems
Instead of recommending yet another book on leadership (they begin to sound alike after awhile), I recommended he change his attention to studies on behavior, sociology, relationships, culture, learning, knowledge, and systems because these are the real bastions of what leadership is all about. When you get right down to it, leadership is simply an outward manifestation of values. How you spend your time reflects who you are as a leader. Spending your time sequestered in an office sends a totally different message than, let's say, spending time on the floor, getting to know people.
Knowing where to spend time and then spending it there is a product of knowledge. Knowledge is the smart-ability to understand systems. Follow me here. Systems-thinking is so darn important for effective leadership yet seems to be ignored as a topic of discussion. People can point to something, like a production system, and say, "Yep, that's a system." But, can they define the attributes and behaviors of systems?
Knowledge, or smartness, is not the ability to recall unlimited facts. Smartness is not finishing a punch list of things to do. It is not, "I talked to 10 employees today. I asked them about their families, pets, cars, and the foods they like. Now I am a leader." Knowing things about fellow employees is a good start, but in the long run, without depth of knowledge and understanding of systems, such behavior becomes rote, institutionalized, and fruitless.
True Leaders and Systems
True leaders understand the relationships between systems. Leaders may not consciously think to themselves, "Gee, the solar system is connected to learning systems which are connected to production systems which are connected to mood systems." But, all those systems really are interconnected.
Just think, for a moment, how wonderful you feel when the sun appears after a string of cloudy days. The sun (solar system) can improve moods (psychology systems) which can improve learning, accomplishment, and, again, moods (cycle systems). If clouds cleared at night only to return in the morning, your contact with the sun goes away. Timing is everything.
Think of leadership and systems like this: every move you make, every word uttered, every decision cast, and every decree dispensed will change peoples' lives. The change, at first, may be imperceptible, but change is a component of evolution and adaptation. The result: culture change.
Attributes of Systems
Listed below are a few attributes of systems. As you read these, think of them in context of being a leader and your relationship with fellow workers:
- Systems have lives of their own, with ebbs and flows of efficiency and effectiveness.
- Information holds systems together, and delays, biases, and faulty feedback loops can send systems into fibrillation.
- Systems can be described through language because thinking is mental and verbal.
- Not all systems are quantifiable.
- Systems have purpose (not necessarily controllable).
- Systems crave change (not always in good ways).
- Systems are complex structures, and adjusting one will create change in others.
- Systems operate over time; instant gratification is not the norm.
A good way to think of systems is to imagine the simple complexities of Milton Freedman's line, "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Think of the hundreds and maybe thousands of production systems involved in making a fish stew. Someone has to catch or farm the fish, transport the slippery thing, sell and ship again (with a bunch of other steps in between). Don't forget the systems for planting, growing, harvesting, and selling carrots, potatoes, celery, tomatoes, and spices that go into fish stew. Then there's packaging, storage, refrigeration, distribution, and marketing. There really is no such thing as a free lunch.
Lesson for Leaders
What does all this systems thinking stuff mean for leaders? Every decision, every move, every hallway-passing interconnects with followers' personal systems, and sometimes the results aren't pretty. Something as seemingly innocuous as failing to greet a fellow worker in the hallway could cause all sorts of unnecessary mood mutations for that employee and everyone he/she passes.
Thinking-leaders are aware of surroundings, are emotionally sensitive to people's moods, and are positive, realistic, and effectual. They aren't distracted by the little things, but do understand how those little things can be important to people's personal systems. A thinking leader may not be the quickest to recall rules, procedures, policy, and all those other modes of operation, but they know and respect their existence.
So, the next time your mind flat lines to thinking that leadership is a series of factoids and sound-bites, shake that mind set and read a good book on practically anything. Any good book exercises the brain. Right now I'm reading a collection of short stories by Alistair MacLeod. Each story is a protagonist's struggle with environments, which just so happens is what we leader types do. Your next book on leadership? Take a step on the wild side and read something completely different.
As Mark Twain put it, "a person who won't read has no advantage over one who can't read."