Many leaders don’t really lead. They follow the paths of other businesses rather than setting their own course, or shift indecisively with circumstances. They are little more than over paid followers.
So how can we avoid falling into that trap?
Leading Instead of Managing
Even comparing ourselves with others can create dangers. The spread of benchmarking from Total Quality Management has led to an obsession with matching the performance and working styles of others, an obsession that can lead to sameness rather than standing out from the crowd. This isn’t to say that comparing ourselves with others isn’t useful, but that we have to be careful how we do it.
Benchmarking is useful as a tool of management, not leadership. By comparing with others we see what is already being achieved, and gain a point of comparison to judge performance. But this isn’t leadership. Leadership is about choosing a direction, and if your direction is chosen by imitating someone else’s best practice than you are following not leading.
By all means, look at what others are doing and learn from the best of what they do. Benchmarking has helped furniture maker Ikea develop a top of the range globe-spanning intranet system for 70,000 users a month. But don’t set out to match the work of others. Set out to exceed it or to apply it in a whole new area.
Leading Toward Substance
The work of true leaders adds something to the world they work in. As Ruth Schwartz has pointed out, the call to ‘give something back’ by engaging in socially beneficial activities outside of work carries with it the implication that the work we do brings no benefit in itself. If that’s how you feel, if you’re leading a team or organization that doesn’t contribute more to the world than it takes, then it’s time to take a step back and consider where you’re leading.
Successful leaders create value rather than just making money. To do that you have to provide something that people want, and that they wouldn’t otherwise have. True leaders drive toward something new, something that would otherwise be missing from the world, a goal that gives more than it takes. Amazon’s recent decision to start paying authors by the page for books read in its Kindle Unlimited lending library holds the potential to more closely align the interests of authors and readers, rewarding the writers who most entertain their audience. It’s the sort of innovation that adds something new and something of substance, instead of following what’s expected.
Leading Your Specific Organization
Many leaders fall back on generic solutions and quick fixes to try to improve their organizations or to tackle problems as they arise. But these only work if they are suitable to your specific organization and its circumstances. If you’re picking up a quick fix or the latest tool you’ve read about on the Internet then the chances of a good fit are low.
A true leader understands their organization. Spend time listening, thinking and developing that understanding. Instead of looking at where you can apply a management or leadership tool, look at the situation you have and ask which tool suits it best. Will a big speech from you really excite and inform people, or will it just annoy them while making you feel good? Do your people need team building or time to develop new procedures? Don’t pick a solution suitable for an organization, pick the one for your organization.
True leadership is specific, it is substantial and it sets its own course. If you want to lead, then following the patterns of others will never be enough.
Originally appeared on Fast Company: http://www.fastcompany.com/3050309/hit-the-ground-running/how-to-stop-managing-and-start-actually-leading