Being better executives

Been reading all that leadership advice? What if you’re NOT inspirational, visionary, empathetic, strategic etc.? Can you still be a leader?

(First off, can we stop calling executives “leaders”. Leadership is a behaviour, exhibited by people anywhere in the organisation, at certain times.  It’s not a job.  But I digress.)

So much advice on how to be an effective executive lists a set of attributes you “must” have. These make me sad, not only because I don’t have them, but more because of the effect the list will be having on others.

No-one has them all in spades. Reading these lists fosters imposter syndrome, increasing the stress on executives trying to make it in conventional management.

Worse, it implies executives should build their weaknesses to be more well-rounded, to collect the set. This is the wrong approach for anyone. Build your strengths not your weaknesses (thankyou Marcus Buckingham).  You will always be T-shaped or pi-shaped or even comb-shaped (Go you!) but you’ll never be rectangular in your skills profile, deep in all of them. Stop beating yourself up.

Worst of all, it implies it’s all on you because top-down. “They’re all looking at you: it’s your job to supply all these different energies, to power the machine, and to drag it along behind you”. That’ll burn you out.  

It’s like saying you must be tall, fit, well-dressed, with good hair and teeth (which seems to genuinely be the criteria in the banking industry). Imagine if that were true and you’re not. All except tall can be fixed. You can change your wardrobe and your diet, go to the gym and the dentist, but you won’t get any taller.  Some can be “fixed” with time, effort, and money.  Some can’t. It’s easy to buy some decent shoes, but even changing how you dress is not a doddle.  It feels unnatural, hard to carry it off.  Let alone getting your legs broken and extended.

So you see the analogy. It’s easy to say “get in shape”, harder to do.  Sure it’s a fine goal, but it will divert time and energy from your other goals. It’s a good thing to have basic fitness, it’s a distraction to get lean and buff. Start where you are. Build your strengths. If you’re already a snappy dresser, refine your wardrobe. If you’re not, then devote a little thought to whether this old t-shirt is really appropriate, buy a shirt you feel comfortable in, and move on. If you’re not so fit, walk every day. Table stakes is enough.

What to do about your weaknesses? Find the right lieutenants and partners (peers, providers, consultants). Running an organisation should be a team sport. Attract people to work with you who complement your gaps. To our analogy, work with a well-dressed athlete.  If you’re not a natural leader (I use that word correctly here), then team with someone who is charismatic. If you’re not a people person, get the advice of an empath. If you’re not the sharpest knife, surround yourself with smart folk.

To be a good executive, there are some basic behaviours you can do to make this team happen, to share the load, to transfer some of it. These aren’t attributes of yourself, they’re activities. Some will come naturally, some you have to practise to make them habits.  But anyone can do them.

They are inversion, invitation, inclusion, and transparency. We call them Open Management.