Leadership takes time

Dr David Pendleton; Professor in Leadership, Henley Business School

I teach leadership and regularly discuss the satisfactions and frustrations of leaders as they navigate their roles in busy organisations.  There is a familiar pattern to several of these discussions.

Organisations, rightly, seek to keep a tight rein on expenditure and staffing levels.  An unforeseen consequence is that even senior players frequently do not have people to whom tasks can readily be delegated.  Instead, they have to do a great deal themselves that could be done by others if they existed in the team.  One senior manager in an outsourced services organisation said

‘I feel I know exactly how I can focus my team and motivate them more effectively but I have too many urgent, mission critical tasks to do with deadlines that cannot be missed, so my team do not get the leadership from me they deserve.’

It is as if the dilemma for hard pressed senior leaders is how to fit in leadership between tasks.  My challenge to them is that leadership IS the task.  The role of leadership is to create the conditions for others to succeed.  Hence, I also focus their attention on what leadership comprises: the tasks of leadership.  These are summarised in the Primary Colours Model of Leadership (Pendleton and Furnham 2012, 2016).  It is illustrated here.

With my colleagues, we have assessed thousands of very able leaders against this model of leadership.  We recently also analysed those leaders who had scored particularly well against any of these leadership tasks.  This led to two important conclusions.

First, no leader scored at the top of the scale on all of the tasks.  It is extremely difficult to be world class in all the tasks.  Thus, world-class, complete leadership is unlikely to be achieved by individuals but it can be achieved by teams of leaders made up of complementary skill sets working effectively together.  This has become a central tenet of our teaching.

Second, the highest scoring leaders in many of these tasks put in considerable amounts of time to achieve the tasks.  It is hard to form effective relationships or create effective team working without putting in time.  Similarly, creating alignment takes time to listen, involve and discuss.  In fact, take any of the tasks here and it becomes clear that there are few shortcuts in terms of the time it takes to do these things well.  Time is critical and, beyond a minimum, irreducible.

In short, if we want leadership in our organisations that is of a high standard, we cannot so over-burden our leaders that they try to lead between other tasks.  Leadership is THE task of senior people and there are specific sub-tasks to be achieved to do it well.  And all this takes a little time.

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