Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

Last week I talked about four areas of ability, or ‘capability sets’, needed for successful leadership. These were:

  • Operations (getting things done)
  • Sales (dealing with people)
  • Finance (dealing with money)
  • ‘Pure’ leadership skills such as vision, optimism, decision-making and setting a personal example.

Leadership: becoming a master

In a world where it seems to take people years to achieve mastery in any of these, even to be good enough at them all seems a very tall order. It is, of course – who says leadership is easy? – but the job can be made a lot easier if certain misunderstandings and psychological barriers are understood and overcome.

My guess is that you are already carrying out one of these functions in your working life already. As you branch out into leadership (of any kind of organisation), you bring these skills in. A great start. Now your challenge is to master the other capability sets. If you don’t, things can go wrong.

Problems for the finance specialist

The former finance specialist can underrate people or production skills. In a commercial setting, they can spend too much time doing financial modeling and ignore the real point of business – making money by selling and delivering products or services to the customer.

The cash that they so skillfully raised (to the envy of many, less financially savvy entrepreneurs) will dwindle away as the business fails to ‘get into gear’.

Problems for the salesperson

By contrast, the former salesperson should have excellent people skills. These will need to be expanded to all of the ‘stakeholders’ in the organisation, not just customers as before. But they can overpromise, presenting the organisation as all things to all people.

An organisation presented this way will soon find itself short of resources – of finance, of equipment, of people, of time – to meet the commitments that the sales-skilled leader has made.

Problems for the operations specialist

The operations specialist can become embroiled in the day-to-day pressures of doing things. They can obsess with detail. Once the organisation grows, they can stifle it with micro-management and, alongside this, poor planning for the future.

Problems for the leader

Someone used to leading can do the opposite, delegating too much of the work too soon, or spending too long pondering the precise nature of the organisation, when what they really need to is roll up their sleeves and get familiar with the nuts and bolts of what the organisation does – for a business, how it creates and / or delivers the product.

They should also be talking to the key stakeholders and keeping a keen eye on the money: for many new organizations there will be something of a ‘rush’ to get sufficient money in to provide a ‘buffer’ for unanticipated problems or cash shortfalls.

Aversion to previous skills

By contrast with all the above, new leaders sometimes suffer from a sudden, violent aversion to their previous skill set. The former specialist is delighted to stop using their old skills, and sees a new project as a holiday from the grind of what they did before.

I have seen finance people, in particular, rush into new areas of endeavour, delighted to be liberated from all that dry ‘head stuff’, only to fall flat on their faces as their vegan restaurant or rural Arts Centre flounders due to a rush of untypical financial irresponsibility.

New leaders can also find themselves with aversions to some new aspects of the role.

Some get bored by operations. There can be a sort of elite mentality whereby delivery is simplistic and the leader is above that sort of thing. This is, of course, dangerous and arrogant. Imagine the owner of a restaurant saying that cooking, serving and buying food was below them!

Aversion to sales is perhaps the most common. This is often based on the misapprehension that sales people are pushy and dishonest. Actually the good salesperson is personable, honest and, above all, methodical.

The people skills needed by any leader have little to do with the cliche traits of the worst kind of salespeople – ‘people buy people’. If you have a hidden agenda, your stakeholders will sense this and will not want to work with you.

People who disliked maths at school or had problems with their parents pressing them to do maths can end up with a kind of maths-phobia. “I’m just no good at it,” they say with a shrug. This can put them off any work with figures, although the maths needed for this role is relatively simple, even in quite large organisations.

Finally, some people who start businesses or find themselves taking on leadership roles of any kind may distrust the concept of leadership and want to get away from it.

Everyone needs strong leadership

They may well have encountered bullying and/or inept leadership and concluded that organisations – and the world – would be better off without these power-hungry busybodies.

Such an attitude can seem cool and anarchic, but it doesn’t reflect reality. Just because there are some lousy leaders out there does not mean that leadership is an optional extra.

Sadly, it just proves the opposite, that leadership is so important that when nobody of any ability can be found to fulfil the role, somebody inadequate has to be found to at least try and perform it. If you feel tempted to revel in non-leadership, rethink.

In all these cases, a rethink about the nature of the roles and the qualities needed to fulfil them can bring about dramatic change, making the roles feel more attractive. This in turn will make their specialist skills much easier to acquire.

As I said in last weeks blog, “It is not how good you are that determines your success, it is how weak you are at any of them. You don’t need to be very good at any of them, just better than average.”

To use the restaurant as an example:

  • Poor financial planning means it looks a mess as no resources are available to maintain it properly
  • Poor operations mean long delays and disorganized staff
  • Poor sales means surly staff and no proper greeting as customers arrive
  • Poor leadership means the whole customer experience seems uneven; the restaurant has nothing special about it

The key point is that the successful restaurateur needs to get all four of these things right: fall down on any one of them and the place will be in trouble.

In the meantime – did you know? I’ve written a book about leadership! If you found this post useful, you’d probably enjoy that too.

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