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The Little Things that Matter in Leadership

Little things really matter in Leadership. I tend to associate leadership with big picture stuff like developing and implementing strategy, inspiring colleagues, and creating a culture that enables the ambition of the organisation. Of course, this is true in that creating the future is clearly a key leadership task, not least in providing the impetus to take people out of the comfort zone of what has worked in the past.

Some of you may have heard me rant about books on change management which give the impression that you can manage change and that everything runs to a predetermined plan with no surprises. You can’t manage change, but you MUST lead it. And now, little things really matter. When someone asks a detail question about something that is incredibly important to them, you have to be ready to answer, recognising that this is more important than the exciting (to you) future that you’re outlining. These little conversations are as much leadership as the town hall meetings addressing large audiences and big issues.

Recently I took a position (unpaid) as the local director of a national charity. I was excited to take up this role, believing that I could make a difference. Some people have said that leadership theories do not apply to volunteers. Nothing could be further than the truth. When you don’t have the authority that comes from employment contracts, you need even more leadership!

One of my biggest challenges is flipping between the long term challenges of building a leadership team in order to meet the strategic priorities of the charity and the constant tensions between volunteers who have different views as to what should be done. I’ve realised that stepping in to deal with these seemingly trivial disputes is as much leadership as doing the big picture inspirational stuff. In fact, for me, it takes more leadership (courage) to know when I have to sort things immediately when I’m tempted to step back and see what happens. For myself I know that I have a tendency to step back and see how things play out and, more often than not, know that I have to do the opposite and step in.

When I’m teaching a leading change module on Masters’ programmes, I tend to say that my advice is to not get involved if you’re not prepared to take the flak, and in some cases to be disliked (hated). I’ve been reminded of these words many times! I have a PowerPoint slide which asks how you might be seen? Agent of Change or Agent of the Devil?

I think it was David Maister who created the Trust Equation which is:

(Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)/Self Interest

Arguably it is how we conduct ourselves in the day to day interactions with individuals that truly demonstrate our leadership. If we only interact with those that we know will agree, or will not challenge us, is this truly leadership? Leadership is about the difficult stuff. Can I challenge you to think of the difficult situations that you may be avoiding? Do those around you really know who you are – the Intimacy aspect of the Trust Equation? It’s in the day to day interactions, the little things, that you are known.

You may know the work of the American poet, David Whyte. One of my favourite quotes from him is:

“The Conversation is not about the work, the Conversation is the work”

This sounds really easy but not always. Of course, there are good conversations where there is a sense of genuine connection with someone else, frequently leading to new ideas and greater motivation. But, there are the conversations that we might be avoiding which, if left, may cause you yet more problems.

Detail is also incredibly important in making sense of big picture strategy. I’ve been working with an organisation that has a great top level vision but has not translated this into clear customer outcomes and, more importantly, clarity about how front line employees contribute to success. There is a real disconnect between the vision of the leadership team and the experience at the coal face. I believe that a key leadership task is that of Interpreting. In other words, taking the top level strategy and making it implementable, making sense to those who deliver it on a day to day basis.

So, if you think of yourself as a big picture person, you ignore the detail at your peril and your leadership will be the poorer for it! I can’t finish without saying that this is even more critical in recent, challenging times. Having detail conversations is mighty difficult when we’re leading remotely but, arguably, central to maintaining motivation.

This blog was written by Graham Clark, Visiting Fellow at Cranfield School of Management and LEAD™ Masterclass speaker. If you'd like to understand more about our leadership and business strategy training and development, please get in touch with us here.



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