There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge can be picked up in the classroom, by reading a textbook and – to some extent – through experience. Real world wisdom, ‘capability’ if you will, can only be picked up through experience. Leadership can be understood through gaining knowledge, but leadership capability can only be developed through experience, applying that knowledge in a range of situations.
A tale of two leaders
I’m going to demonstrate this idea by showing you how to make a fruit salad. Not a hard thing to do. So, let’s do it from two different leaders’ perspectives, each with the assistance of a five-year-old child.
Leader #1: let’s call him Father*
“We’re going to make a fruit salad. You’re in charge, I’ll help you,” said dad.
“Okay, what do we do?” replied Sam.
“Chop up some fruit and put it in a bowl,” continued Sam’s dad. “I’ll chop, you mix.” Then, nodding towards the fridge, “Get the fruit.”
This is going well, thinks dad, and the task at hand progresses.
“Tomatoes are fruit, aren’t they daddy?” Sam suddenly exclaims.
Leader #2: Let’s call her Mother*
“We’re going to make a fruit salad. I’ll lead, and you can help,” said mum.
“Okay, what do we do?” replied Sam.
“What do we want in our fruit salad?” continued mum. “How should we get started?”
This starts a conversation. Sam feels involved and excited that they are doing something new together. This is going well, thinks mum, and the task at hand progresses.
“Tomatoes are fruit, aren’t they mummy?” Sam suddenly exclaims.
Key leadership tasks
Our parent-leaders have taken different approaches to five key leadership tasks: visioning, translating the vision into a plan, defining the task, communicating the plan and deploying their resources. And they both seem to be getting on with the task, and with Sam, reasonably well.
There are three other things leaders do: motivate the team, control and evaluate team performance and lead by example. Let’s look at how mum and dad might deal with these aspects of leading Sam.
1. Leaders grasp opportunities to motivate their team
How will the leaders now respond to the killer question? In other words, how will they motivate Sam to maintain performance?
Ask Sam to explain her thinking?
Just say “no”, without explanation?
Say, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing”?
Brush the question aside or even brush Sam aside?
Plans are not set in stone. Questions from the team are a great opportunity to motivate… or to demotivate! What would your response be? What would your boss’s response be if you or someone else in the team were to ask what may seem to be a silly question?
2. Leaders control and evaluate performance effectively
Here are two ways our Mother/Father leaders could control the task and evaluate Sam’s performance:
- A coaching/nurturing style. The parent might question Sam on her* progress, probing where necessary and guiding her to adjust her approach: “How’s it going?”
- A directive/controlling style. Performance expectations are set unilaterally by the parent, who is more concerned about when deviations from the plan will be rectified than how this will be achieved: “You’re not doing it right!”
Ask yourself honestly, which sort of leader are you? And is this always appropriate? It might be some of the time. Flexing your style only comes with experience.
3. Leaders lead by example
Sam’s attitude to the task of creating the fruit salad could go one of two ways:
She might get particularly excited, “This is going to be the best fruit salad ever!” The leader has built capability and kept motivation high. The leader might even ask how we can make the salad even better to elicit further growth and innovation in her* team.
Or, Sam might become frustrated, “I can’t do it!” In which case the leader has a tougher challenge on her hands. She might choose to take over, or might suggest an alternative role for Sam.
The true character of a leader is often revealed under stress.
Perhaps, being dependable under pressure is more important than being charismatic or in control?
What is leadership anyway?
Think of a great boss you’ve had; and an awful one. What words would you use to describe the awful boss, the worst you’ve had? And how would you describe the greatest leader you’ve worked for? Write a description of that person’s behaviour.
Regardless of your answers, consider this definition of leadership:
Leadership is the power to organise ideas into action; the power to change.
Leadership is not management – processes need managing, organisations need leading. This is because organisations are (by definition) collections of people achieving something together. These collections of people create a collection of systems. As that system becomes more complex, subsystems emerge, each specialising on one aspect of the organising activity. These subsystems develop different objectives and can be in conflict in terms of what they consider most important. Hence, they need organising in pursuit of the common objective. This is the essence of organisation, the essence of leadership.
Let’s hope the fruit salad came together for Sam and her parent(s). Sam has built her knowledge and experience. She and her parents have, in their own way, built organisational capability.
Knowledge x Experience = Capability
You need both knowledge and experience to generate leadership capability too. You can get knowledge by attending courses, reading books or being shown what to do. When it comes to developing leadership capability, some classroom training may help. Learning in the real world through experience will propel you faster and further. This requires other support such as 360-degree feedback, psychometrics, coaching, mentoring and action learning to reflect on your leadership impact in the real world.
Some call it wisdom.
Or in other words,
Knowledge understands a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom understands not to put it in a fruit salad.
* It is not my intention to suggest a gender divide in leadership, or indeed in followership, styles.
Jeremy J Lewis
March 5, 2018
Committed to making a difference in building organisational capability