A Conversation on Leadership

A Conversation on Leadership

With Dr. Allan Scherr and Dovid Chaim Hoffman

The following pages are excerpted from an ongoing conversation between, Allan Scherr and Dovid Hoffman. The subject is leadership. We will be speaking about leadership both in terms of theory and in practical experience.  Allan and Dovid have both spent many years in leadership environments as leader, trainer, coach. We have been personally responsible for the results and have been there to support others.  During the past 10 years we have worked on numerous projects together as well as many more individually.

Dovid: Allan, I have been reading on Linkedin, conversation after conversation, attempting to boil leadership down to its simplest elements. And while I appreciate the intention, I am amazed at times by the diversity of reply.

Recently the question asked was, “What is the single mostimportant characteristic of a leader?” Over the next 10 days,this question got hundreds, if not thousands of responses. They ranged from personal power to generosity. I was left wondering what leadership means to many of the responders. I also was left feeling like it is actually a great question and the answer may require some explanation as it seems that many of us use different definitions for the same words. So, Allan, in your opinion and experience, what is the single most important characteristic of a leader?

Allan: The true leaders that I have observed over the years have a wide range of personalities and leadership styles. The most important thing they all have in common is personal integrity. When they spoke, you knew that what they were saying had meaning, was important, and was not just talk. When they asked people to make things happen, you knew that they were committed to the result they were requesting. When they made a decision, you knew their skin was in the pot. When they delegated something, you knew they were committed to your success.

Dovid: So, in what you are saying there are several items I want to follow up on. First, you speak of integrity and I am clear that people have many different interpretations of that word. Would you mind elaborating? Second, you refer to “true leaders”; what is a true leader and how can one tell? I think we need some sort of measurement for leadership in this conversation. Would it suffice to say that leaders are to be measured by two primary factors; the production of intended results and the generation of new leaders?

Allan: To me, a person with integrity is one who “honors” his or her word. Meaning that when they speak, they speak with commitment. When they listen, they listen for commitment from others. They are committed to keeping their word. When others give their word to them, they are committed to the other person keeping his or her word. Finally, if and when they discover that they are unable to deliver what they committed, they communicate this fact to those concerned and clean up whatever mess is created.

I agree with your take on what a true leader is: a person who produces extraordinary results and around whom new leaders emerge. There is one other critical aspect and that is that this generally occurs in the context of an organization or group.

Being a leader of oneself as an individual may produce extraordinary results, but is lacking the real challenge of leadership: enrolling others to commit to be on a team whose purpose is to produce extraordinary results and leading the resulting team through the hurdles of actually producing the result.

Dovid: Great, so a leader is someone who produces extraordinary results and around whom other leaders emerge and for the moment we are discussing specifically leaders of teams of people rather than people who “lead themselves”.

You mention the hurdles of producing the result and in my experience the hurdles are a critical part of the process. How does a leader get a team of people, each of whom may have issues or challenges personally, through a process of producing the intended results?

I see many opinions online about how leaders necessarily make people around them feel empowered or are always good listeners or always create a fun or exciting environment. It seems that many believe that the only way to lead is to be nice, charming, gregarious, empowering and fun. Is that your experience? Are true leaders always a pleasure to be with? Do they necessarily make the people around them feel a certain way? Is that how they get through the, “hurdles of actually producing the result”?

Allan: Many of the people I consider to be true leaders are, at least superficially, not much fun to be with. A couple of my heroes regularly scared people that met them. They were intense, profane, sometimes bordering on being bullies. As I got to know them better, I discovered that they had big hearts, loved people, and were generous and trusting. After I got over my fear of them, I did love being around them. The thing that encouraged me to perform around them was that they trusted me completely to get the job done. Being empowered isn’t just having the freedom to do a job, it’s also about being responsible for the result that is produced. These guys clearly were holding me responsible. AND, they were also responsible for my result. When the going got tough and the hurdles seemed insurmountable, they didn’t look to blame me or anyone else. They became a resource to aid me in solving the problems. Consequently, I always felt a part of their team, and that we were all in this together.

As for the hurdles, I believe that no extraordinary result is achieved without encountering situations that, at least at first, seem insurmountable. Therefore, by definition, a true leader must be adept at leading his or her team over, through, or around these hurdles.

Dovid: I have been on both sides of the leadership scenario you describe and have had some victories and have made some pretty big mistakes. I remember one situation where I was new in a leadership position and had a substantial project to get done under great pressure. The people who were truly on my team allowed me both the freedom to ask a lot of them and the leeway to make mistakes. The challenge came with people who joined the team later, after the project had momentum. It seems I failed to see the difference between these groups of people, those who were committedly, “on the team” and those who had just arrived. It seems that there is a factor of leadership effectiveness that has to do with the relationship between people. In your opinion, is it trust? How does one come into a last minute leadership position, or add new members to the team and have what it takes to be able to generate high performance?

Allan: People joining an existing team can present a problem if they are not integrated effectively. Presumably, there was a meeting at the beginning of the project where each team member and the leader made commitments to produce the project’s end result and to each other’s commitments (like being able to take vacation, not working more than so many hours per week, etc.). This meeting generally gets repeated every time there is a major breakdown to handle. I would have new people experience these meetings by recreating the original meeting for them or, if possible, by having them watch a video of it. They should also be taken through any history of the team’s handling breakdowns in terms of what happened, how were the commitments renewed or modified, and what was the outcome. Finally, when there is another breakdown tohandle, particular attention should be paid to the new people and the nature of their participation to make sure they authentically commit to the project and the team. As for being suddenly thrust into a leadership position, I assume this happens to a person who is already a member of the team. If not, the new leader should go through the steps

I’ve outlined above. Other than that, I would have the new leader read this dialog (when it’s complete) and behave accordingly.

Dovid: In the case I described, above, it was about as far from what you lay out here as appropriate as possible. The leader was dismissed due to poor performance and I was brought in with no experience on the team and no subject matter experience whatsoever. There were members of the team who were convinced that they ought to have been the one appointed and more who were convinced it just should not have been me. All things considered, we were quite successful. The project was completed, on time and on budget and no onedied in the process. We actually did many of the things you described. We discussed the committed outcomes both one on one and in groups and we asked for everyone to be clear on the commitments they had made and whether or not they were still committed. And then we set out to produce an extraordinary result and did.

One of the things you point to that I have missed in the past is the idea that the meeting to review what a team is committed to can be repeated anytime a breakdown impacts the team. Many times leaders react to breakdowns as problems that need to get “fixed” right away rather than as opportunities for the team to come closer, refocus and proceed as a team. I like the idea of formally revisiting the original commitment. I tend to do that casually and with individuals rather than the whole team. And the idea of video taping the original project meetings is an interesting one as well. Have you done that or seen it done? What was the outcome?

Allan: I’ve never video taped the original project meeting so I can only guess how effective it would be. The juice for me is to have the new team member(s) and the existing team members essentially recreate the original meeting. For me, using a current unsolved breakdown as the focus of the meeting allows two objectives to be handled at once: establishing the new team member’s commitments, recreating the existing team members’ commitments, and solving the breakdown. It has surprised me how often breakdowns are resolved simply by reexamining the commitment that precipitated it. In the reexamination it may become clear that a simple shift in the form of the commitment opens the way for a solution. I’ve found it useful to ask questions like:

• What other outcomes will satisfy this commitment?

• What is the commitment behind this commitment?

• What are we really trying to accomplish?

Generally, I would do this after having the team, including the new member(s), affirm their commitment to the project and to one another’s commitments.

We welcome all comments.  Please let us know your thoughts.  Do you have a situation like any of these in your organization?  Want to discuss?  Let us know.

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