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The fallacy of the ‘hands-off’ leader

Sep 14, 2007 Business Daily, Leadership

“Lots of business leaders like to think that the top dog is exempt from the details of actually running things. It’s a pleasant way to view leadership: you stand on the mountaintop, thinking strategically and attempting to inspire your people with visions, while managers do the grunt work. This idea creates a lot of aspirations for leadership, naturally. Who wouldn’t want to have all the fun and glory while keeping their hands clean?

…This way of thinking is a fallacy, one that creates immense damage.

An organisation can execute only if the leader’s heart and soul are immersed in the company. Leading is more than thinking big, or schmoozing with investors and law-makers, although those are part of the job. The leader has to be engaged personally and deeply in the business.”

Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Execution (2002)

Is this not how we view leadership in Kenya: the top dog’s job, the one with all the serious perks, and the one where most things can be delegated? Leaders, both political and corporate, often imagine theirs is a ‘hands-off’ role: they have to think big things and utter inspirational words. The rest is detail, left to the ‘grunts’ to do.

Perhaps that explains why we have such a problem getting things done.

Larry Bossidy, an accomplished CEO, teamed up with Ram Charan, a renowned management consultant, to write Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done in 2002. They make a forceful point: that execution is the job of the business leader.

Execution is about three organisational processes: setting the strategy; picking other leaders and motivating them; and conducting operations. These three processes simply cannot be delegated to anyone else – regardless of the size of the organisation. In organisations that make big things happen, the leader is ALWAYS involved in the substance – and even the details – of execution.

Why so? Because the leader is in a unique position. Only the leader can have an intimate understanding of the big picture – the organisation, its people, and its environment. Only a leader can ask the tough questions. Only the leader can understand the trade-offs and choices that need to be made. Only a leader can set the tone of the dialogue in the organisation.

How people deal with each other will determine how well the organisation will function. Dialogue is the core of culture, say Bossidy and Charan. If dialogue is stilted, politicised, fragmented and ‘butt-covering’, that tone has been set by the leader – through action or inaction. If the tone is candid and based on reality, and seeks to identify solutions rather than amplifying problems – then the leader has been doing his or her job well.

Is getting things done a real problem where you work? Perhaps it’s time to stop blaming the usual suspects – junior managers, culture, rewards, or politics. Perhaps it’s time to question leadership. If your leader moves from cocktail party to golf tournament, from international conference to product launch – and never spends any time getting his hands dirty in the business – then perhaps it’s time to wonder.

A leader who does not spend the bulk of his or her time with key employees and with key customers is in breach of duty. If that work is given to others, trouble looms.

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