What is a Leader to do – First?

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It’s not as if there are no suggestions out there for leaders. Today’s leaders are deluged by surveys, consultants, books, talk shows, CEOs and retired military commanders, all telling them what they need to be doing and how they can be more effective.
There is another source of advice that’s not nearly so popular, but one I’ve come to rely on a lot. It’s research.
If you summarize the research that’s been done about leadership during the past century and you stand back far enough to observe the whole forest, you will see there are really two critical functions to which leaders must attend. In the research literature about leadership effectiveness, these are most commonly called “task-oriented behaviors” and “relationship-oriented behaviors.”
Task behaviors are about making sure the structural and contextual factors are in place to get the work accomplished most easily. Relationship behaviors of the leader focus on the individual, interpersonal and group dynamic issues that arise whenever different people come together to accomplish work.
It is clear from the research that to be effective long-term, a leader needs to have skills in both arenas. A leader who solely focuses on the task without paying attention to people issues may succeed in the short run, but will have long-term problems with attrition, absenteeism, skill retention and even sabotage. Conversely, a leader who focuses solely on relationship issues may create a caring workplace without making “the numbers.” Neither condition is effective in the long run.
The question I am often asked is: “Which set of behaviors should the leader focus on first?” Given the number of organizations offering courses about process consultation, coaching and sensitivity training, you might be tempted to think that relationship behavior is the place to begin.
For example, one popular book offering the “relationship model first” is entitled, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.” This book follows a new CEO as she takes the reins of a technology firm that is failing. She possesses all the key skills to be an excellent relationship-oriented leader. She knows when to ask questions, when to let the executive team struggle and when to make process observations. Amazingly, for the first two weeks on the job, she does nothing but walk around and make observations without offering any suggestions.
Rather unusual CEO behavior, but maybe that’s why this is entitled a leadership fable. At any rate, she seems to have the patience of Job to allow her team to come to the realization that much of their context and structure is not appropriate for the tasks to be accomplished. Good for her.
I should have been empathizing with this CEO as she consistently allows her team to stumble forward, but as I read the book, I found myself in a very different place. It became obvious that with her experience and background, she knows how to structure the organization and shape the executive team to enhance their effectiveness.
Rather than make the necessary changes, she appears to be content in her relationship role, much like a salmon struggling upstream against a flow of poor context.
I’ve seen organizations stumble along the same course — although usually not by design, but by circumstance. The leadership of one such organization focused its attention almost solely on relationship management in spite of the fact that its organizational structure, design and systems were antithetical to its mission and strategy.
Believe me; they needed a lot of relationship work because everything else in the organizational structure and context fueled the fires of conflict and discord. Why make it so hard for people to do their work, and thus so much in need of relationship help?
That’s why I favor the position of accomplishing the “task work” first. My definition of leadership is fairly straightforward — the leader’s job is to create the conditions for the team to be effective.
I believe that people really do like to get things done. And there is a great deal of advice in research-based models that can guide leaders in the creation of appropriate structures and contexts for getting tasks accomplished.
From our work, we know that if we 1) have the right people in place on the team, 2) teach the leaders how to create appropriate team conditions and 3) develop appropriately supportive and functional systems, structures and contexts, we are well on our way to success.
Of course, this will not eliminate the need for relationship behaviors. Even under the best designed structures and contexts, relationship issues will emerge and need to be dealt with appropriately.
Coaching is important, as is conflict management and the development of interpersonal trust. But in a well-structured and contextually appropriate organization, relationship issues will be operating at the margin, not at the core.
By creating the conditions for task work to flow as a first priority, leaders can then focus on the few relationship issues that may emerge in the course of time.
Robert C. Ginnett, MBA, Ph.D. is a senior partner with Impact Leadership Development in Colorado Springs.