Leaders should create clarity and space in equal measure,
As a leader, there are so many things that we have to consider. Whether this is the operational detail within our teams and organisations, or the high-level strategic thinking and planning. There can sometimes see a never-ending set of problems to solve and at times we might feel like we are needing to drive and push for performance.
The role of the leader is also increasingly complex and uncertain as we move into even more fast paced changes and what can seem like an overwhelming set of demands. Add to this the wider requirement for leaders to not only focus on results, but importantly, human connection, inclusion, wellbeing, and sustainability.
When things get complex, the true leader simplifies. Too much complexity at the leadership level leads to confusion and lack of clear direction within the organisation. Every leader needs to maintain the pursuit of calm, simple messaging and emotional stability for themselves and their teams.
Fundamentally, in the simplest of terms, every leader has a key outcome that they are coordinating, and this is to shift something from A to B. This could be a day-to-day operation, making products or serving customers from the start of a working day to the end. At the other end of the scale this could be significant multi-year, high investment transformation which will completely change the way an organisation works. In either of these cases, the leader’s job is to ensure that the outcome is that something (a product, service, transformation) moves from A to B.
To achieve this shift, we can get caught up in the many, many things we as leaders need to do to make that happen. However, to simplify, there really are just two things that any leader needs to do to create leadership outcomes.
It is the role of the leader to ensure that there is clarity for everyone. What this means is clear direction (where are we going), clear purpose (why) and a shared understanding that the destination is interpreted the same (what does it look like when we get there?). If a leader can help to ensure that these questions are clear and answered, it sets the parameters for any team or organisation to operate with a sense of unity.
Creating clarity does not have to be achieved by the leader alone. Indeed, it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that clarity exists, that does not mean to say that the leader has all the answers. Ensuring that others are involved builds ownership towards the direction and helps ensure others are sharing the communication of the message. However, it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that there is this sense of shared endeavour.
Establishing clear direction and communicating it is not a one-off job. This is a continual process of communicating, listening and of course correcting to ensure that everyone is involved, and the direction is visible to all.
Getting out of the way
The second role of the leader is to create space. The role of the leader is not to ‘do’ but to inspire the collective agency of others. Therefore, the role of the leader is to ensure that individuals and teams are able to give their best, be creative and innovative, and collaborate together in pursuit of a common goal.
For a leader to be able to create space for others, the fundamental pre-requisite is trust. Leaders need to trust in their teams and the individuals need to trust that if they put their full effort into the achievement of the direction, there is a supportive environment and a learning environment within which they can fail fast and bring novel and different ideas and ways of working.
For a leader to build trust it is important that they start with a fundamental and ongoing commitment towards self-awareness. This is understanding not only their strengths and areas for growth, but also appreciating how they may be experienced by others and working from a place of intention.
The importance of symmetry
To create the environment for a team to be productive and thrive, these two key roles of the leader are the simplest summary of where energy and attention should be spent. However, what is absolutely critical is the symmetry of both of these activities.
If a leader focuses too much on clarity but does not actively create space, this can be seen as authoritarian and can lead to passive behaviour in others.
If a leader focuses too much on getting out of the way and does not ensure that clarity exists and there are shared expectations for performance and delivery, then this can lead to chaos and a lack of guideposts for individuals and the team to refer to.
The key is to be in deep symmetry, so the leader is working both to create clarity and create space in equal measure, both reinforcing the leader’s ability to create the other. For example, the more a leader creates clarity the easier it is for them to trust and create space because everything is shared and understood. If a leader creates space, then there is more opportunity for them to reflect, listen and observe in order to understand where more clarity is required.
Paula Leach has over 25 years’ experience in HR, most notably as Chief People Officer at The Home Office She now runs her own business, Vantage Points Consulting, and is the author of Vantage Points: how to create a culture where employees thrive.
Simplifying leadership: Two Jobs You Must Do For A Thriving, High-Performance Culture