Confessions of a conventional leader gone rogue

Posted on Posted in Leadership

This post was originally posted in Barona’s blog as I got the opportunity to share there my experiences and lessons about leadership.

Success in business eventually boils down to the quality of leadership, no matter what the size or age of the company, or in which industry it operates. Even the revolutionary decacorns like Uber can fail because of the quality of leadership. This is not a surprise for anyone in business and it has always been the case. However, much of what has been written and studied about leadership is becoming outdated at the same pace as working life is changing. 

My career is merely a decade long, but I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to witness many of the changes in working life. I’ve also had the privilege of working as a manager for five years. During those years, I had a lot of training and coaching, read a great deal about leadership and as it is inevitable, I learned a lot through numerous mistakes. The nasty part is that those mistakes most often affected people negatively and it took me years to find the tools necessary for me to figure out how to lead people better. With this post I’d like to contribute in creating a better working life by helping existing and future leaders to avoid some of the mistakes I made.

Conventional leader starts to fail

As the headline suggests, I was a conventional leader. The formal trainings I had were based on decades old research and books, of which some are still relevant, others not so much. Me and my teams had crystal clear job descriptions, processes, guidelines and detailed targets that we tracked on a daily basis. I had regular talks with my team members and evaluated their performance against the set targets and gave them feedback. Most of the time I loved my job and I was good at it. Me and my teams had very challenging targets and typically we nailed them!

The challenges started when I took charge of a team that would establish a new business in a new environment for the organisation I worked for. From the very beginning, it seemed unreasonably difficult to reach the goals with the processes that had worked before. My reaction was to implement stricter control and follow-up. As not being able to do the job myself, I suspected that my team members weren’t executing the processes properly and doing their jobs as well as they could. Naturally, this wasn’t the case, but I didn’t know it then. I pushed myself and the team more and it helped us get short-term results, but in the long term the fundamental challenges were still looming. Worse than this, the people in my team started to feel bad and get stressed, some more than others.

Fortunately, I got a lot of support from my employer, including the opportunity to develop my leadership skills by attending several conferences with world-renowned leadership thought-leaders. Little by little I started to get a grasp of how I should lead to be able to genuinely support my team – and it was very different from what I was used to. The pivotal change, though, occurred only when I learned to learn.

Learning – the skill that saved me

Most of the people in business have studied for 15+ years and most us agree that continuous learning is what is needed for keeping your job and being able to develop your career in the future decades. However, most people have challenges in defining what learning is, and how does learning take place especially in organisations. I realized this at one of my last courses of my MBA degree, where after years of studies I heard for the first time how to define (organisational) learning, and most importantly, I learned about loops of learning.

Shortly put, there are three levels or loops of learning. Single-loop learning focuses on improving what is currently being done. For example, you might want to bicycle faster from place A to B and you’ll focus your efforts on improving the process of cycling and optimising the route. Second-loop learning would involve you considering another vehicle to get from A to B. Maybe you should take a car instead, as you won’t be able to cycle any faster. In triple-loop learning you would consider whether getting from A to B is relevant an activity in the first place. Maybe you should be going to C or D, or stay at A.

As a result of learning about the learning-loops, I first realised that the things I had recently learned about leadership and the changes in my behaviour and actions as a leader were consequences of double-loop learning. The more important realisation was to become aware that understanding and intentionally utilising the loops of learning could be used for developing my capabilities, those of others around me and the capabilities of the whole organisation. I was now able to assess things from a broader perspective and reframe the problems we were trying to solve. Reframing and reassessing the problems often lead us changing what was done, instead of focusing whether something was done right. Especially in the beginning it felt uncomfortable, because it wasn’t tested, and we couldn’t anticipate the results. This did pay off, though. The team got back on track and started making results that could never have been anticipated, if we had continued trying to improve the execution of existing working methods.

Your ability to learn defines your success as a leader

I intentionally won’t vouch for any specific leadership framework or model. There are plenty of them, a lot has been written about most, and at the end of the day, the leadership model needs to be fitted based on the organisation’s and its people’s needs. What I do want to point out for any present or future leader, is that you can’t lead the work and experts of 2010s with methods developed for decades old industrial settings. Most importantly, learning to learn will be the key capability for you to find the best ways to lead your people and organisation.

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