3 Questions Leaders Can Ask Themselves

Exercising leadership is not easy.  With limited time and inadequate resources, it can feel like a daily leap of faith.  If you are driving change in a dynamic environment I have 3 questions which can help you stay focused.  These questions are inspired from years working in fragile and post conflict states  in Sub-Saharan Africa and recently in the Balkans.

1 – What are your basic values when it comes to the work you do?

2 – How much do you need to leverage incentives and how much do you need to develop people?

3 – How can you work with and not against time?

Values define the work you manage

Values are the foundation of your work.  If you don’t know what you stand for, it’s easy to let ‘alternative positions’ gain a foothold in your organization.  Competing interests could easily push you towards the lowest common denominator.  This is crucial during a crisis or after a crisis where greed, desperation or alliances driven by poverty and limited resources can influence your environment.

In sum, the point is not to be ‘virtuous and good’, it is about knowing what you and your team won’t tolerate, won’t pursue and what makes you and your business/group/unit/agency loose credibility if the truth were to come out.  If your team knows and lives its values, then no amount of slander, intrigue or confusion can derail how you do your work.

People need incentives AND development

Confusion between incentives and development is something I see a lot.  Incentives can drive behavior but have little to do with capabilities.   Additionally, you can train your staff/team/partners till kingdom come but if incentives work against them, they will not act on the knowledge.

When it comes to incentives, most of the under-performing staff I support are working in environments that promote low performance.  Nevertheless, formal trainings will not solve the problem.  The complicated truth is after so many years working in a given environment they may not know how to work at higher levels of performance or  even how to work differently.  Anyone who struggles to loose weight knows what I mean.  Knowing what to do is different from figuring out how to do it when temptation is all around.

This leads us to the development or capabilities challenge.  When it comes to development I’ve noticed senior leadership lacking a bit of insight on how adults learn.  Adults learn best by doing.  Once they start doing in a  ‘safe’ environment and making a bit of progress, they will often beg you for the technical training you were tempted to offer in the first place, why, because it supports their perceived needs.

In sum, on their own incentives create a space for performance improvements and while learning by doing in a safe space ensures your staffs abilities will be ready to take on new challenges.

Time is indifferent to your needs

Time management is usually found in books on … you guessed it… management.  Nevertheless, I find that timing has a huge impact on the success of leadership interventions.  Is it the right time for change?  Is it the right time to push people? Is it time to slow down and acknowledge people’s fears and concerns about the change?  How am I as a leader spending my time: am I driving and maintaining a process of change, am I putting out fires, or am I simply enjoying the pleasures of my station of authority?

Some of us get lucky, it feels like time is on our side, but in fragile states, post conflict situations or situations with heavy competition authority figures do not have the luxury to avoid the hard work of listening, pushing, aligning, supporting, protecting and clarifying the way forward for their coalitions of the willing and not so willing.  Once the ‘perfect’ moment is gone, it’s gone; those against your reform get more organized, those with neutral positions could turn into people who accept hardline positions.

In sum, leadership is hard work however it’s time bound.  The perfect moment will not return.

To wrap up, values, incentives and development as well as timing represent the hidden work behind successful acts of leadership.  When handled well they can set you up for success.

  1. So go ahead, start by living your values.  It can guide your work and actually spare you the pain of dealing with sticky situations down the line.
  2. Examine incentives and development: there are no easy formulas.  Provide a structure of incentives that brings out the best in your staff, couple that with learning and development opportunities which helps them grow.
  3. Finally – pay attention to timing.  As  you struggle to create readiness for change, do not sabotage your efforts by hoping time will wait for you to be ready to act.  Instead, be prepared to take advantage the moment opportunities arise.
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