How Leadership Makes a Difference

If you’ve got a generous budget and an appropriately-sized, energetic, motivated and productive staff, you can stop reading now. Clearly you’ve got more assets than most knowledge managers and must, as a result, be achieving great things in the world of knowledge management. If, however, you aren’t so fortunate, you might want to read further.

In this political season (or as one of the presidential candidates called it, this “silly season“), there’s a lot of talk about leadership. Unsurprisingly, much of that discussion is superficial. When you look back at some great leaders in this country, you realize that some of the talents they brought to the table are innate and simply cannot be purchased or developed. For example, George Washington was universally known as a great leader and, undoubtedly, that reputation was due to more than the mere fact that he was often the tallest man in the room. However, while having an imposing physical size was not sufficient, it certainly was helpful. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the sort of asset that is hard to purchase or develop. A different kind of asset is the moral compass Abraham Lincoln had or the personal courage Theodore Roosevelt had. While they may have been flawed men in many ways, they also had enormous strengths that ultimately made a huge difference in how they led and what they accomplished for this country.

For the purposes of this discussion, however, it’s useful to put Franklin Roosevelt front and center in your mind. The manner in which he led involved methods that can be developed in adult life. Furthermore, we are learning now that some of these methods are critical to good leadership in modern enterprises. Here are a few of these methods for your consideration:

How you deliver the message matters as much as the message itself

In day to day leadership, one of the most critical things you do is communicate what’s important and how it is to be accomplished. What isn’t always understood is that the way you communicate matters as much as (if not more, sometimes, than) the message itself. Looking back at FDR, he was very careful in his public appearances to project vitality, strength and optimism. But this was not just for show. Most of us, after all, have fairly good personal radar for detecting insincerity. Rather, he was able to project these things successfully because he believed them himself, truly embodied them, and had great faith in his overriding purpose.

Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq. reports on a study that compared the results of communicating a positive performance review accompanied by negative body language (e.g., frowns, narrowed eyes, flat voice, etc.) with communicating a negative performance review accompanied by positive body language (e.g., smiles, nods, good eye contact, open hand gestures, etc.) What the study found is striking: people who received positive reviews delivered with negative body language felt worse about their performance than people who received negative reviews delivered with positive body language. The latter felt encouraged and capable of making improvements. This study puts a premium on intentionality and clarity in leadership. You need to be sure that you are coherent and consistent in what you say AND how you say it.

Leadership is about more than achieving personal acclaim

By the time he became president, FDR had already been governor of a great state and had all the benefits of having grown up in one of the country’s leading families. He really didn’t need to burnish his résumé. Unfortunately, too many business “leaders” are in it for the glory and not as many have a cause truly worth fighting for. FDR had several Herculean tasks, including bringing the country out of the Great Depression and curtailing fascism. Are you working for anything more than your ego and your résumé?

Leadership means developing the best in others

One of the hallmarks of FDR’s leadership was that he understood that historic times required historic efforts. To that end, he called on the people of the United States to give more than the they thought they could give and be more than they thought they could be. History tells us that they answered that call.

FDR clearly understood that at the end of the day, leadership is not about you, it’s about the people you serve and lead. We now know that there are also some compelling business reasons for focusing on them rather than on yourself. An exhaustive study at Bell Laboratories followed the career trajectories of engineers in an attempt to identify the traits of star performers and determine how to recruit and retain the best engineers. In his paper, “Are We Selling Results or Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies and Firm-Specific Capital,” William D. Henderson reports that what they found was striking:

– researchers found no relationship between performance and various social, psychological, and cognitive abilities, such as I.Q
– higher productivity among knowledge workers was attributable to several distinctive work strategies that were teachable
– controlled experiments showed large and persistent productivity gains for engineers who completed the training program, with women and minority workers posting the largest increases [emphasis added]

What this suggests is that building a great team depends less on recruiting stars, and more on how you develop the people who work with you. A great leader will take the time and make the effort to ensure their team learns the “distinctive work strategies” for success that the researchers at Bell Labs found were “teachable.”

In knowledge management, as in politics or any other discipline, good leadership is a rare asset. Those of us who have it will be ahead of the pack. The good news is that even members of that pack can develop some of the attributes of good leadership. And, when they do, we’ll all be much better off.

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