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  • LEADERSHIP SNAPSHOTS: A CRITICAL EYE

    The capacity for critical observation is a necessary, though not by itself sufficient, requirement for successful leadership.

    Identification of successful enterprises takes little skill. In addition to the production and marketing of quality goods or services, success exhibits characteristics of cheerfulness, courtesy, and commitment, externally to customers, and internally to the work force, that go beyond the impersonal language of role statement and job description. But success is not inevitable; it is the end result of applied and carefully targeted effort.

    Competent leaders in industry and commerce know that the foundations for success are enterprise, quality management and a motivated work force. One hallmark of success is growth, and growth means job security for workers. Quality management is necessary for realisation of all of the potential benefits from available material resources and financial assets within competitive time frames. Successful leadership aims at the creation of a working environment wherein not only are the potential material benefits desired by the business achieved, but also all employees feel a high degree of satisfaction and personal achievement for their contributions.

    Leadership courses conducted by The Leadership Academy focus on experiential learning of the basic skills of functional leadership, as well as important communication and motivational knowledge and skills. Emphasis is placed on the employment of these skills to achieve results. But, one of the keys to business growth is gaining and retaining a competitive edge, not only in capital items and production processes, but also in people, whether they are the workers who produce the goods and services, or make the sales, or comprise the administrative infrastructure. Executives and managers who aim at having their workers at the forefront of human performance understand the need for advanced leadership skills. One such skill is the capacity for critical observation.

    In leadership terms, the phrase a critical eye is a metaphor meaning the deliberate actions of gleaning relevant information using all of our senses as well as the senses of others in order to improve overall performance. A critical eye does not necessarily imply observing for purposes of criticism, although critical evaluation of performance may eventuate. Rather, a critical eye should have a multi-dimensional focus, ranging from ferreting out areas where performance falls short of expectations, to identification, exploration and support of novel approaches that might yield more fruitful returns.

    Trust is the core of leadership. However, application of a critical eye frequently involves scraping parts of the work-performance veneer to learn what lies beneath, and this process often exposes shortcomings. Examples abound of glossy or artificial appearances concealing behavioural problems or sub-standard job performance. Effective leadership ensures that all processes, procedures and outcomes are periodically exposed to audit to verify compliance with prescribed standards. The trick for leaders lies in selecting strategies for audit that do not damage trust and goodwill, personal sensitivities notwithstanding. Above all else the leaders first duty is to the viability of the firm, or part thereof, and it is therefore axiomatic that leaders must trust, but verify.

    Critical observation begins with self-training in the development of a critical eye. When journalists asked US President George Bush what actions he would be taking to drive the invading Iraqi forces from Kuwait, he replied, tersely, watch and learn. This is also very good advice for all practising and developing leaders. Watch and learn from other leaders: your peers, subordinates, superiors, and from readings. Study both their strengths and weaknesses. Ask yourself, ‘How can I capitalise on my strengths, whilst minimising the negative effects of my weaknesses’?

    The leader is the role model for the group, and it follows, therefore, that self-appraisal is an important leadership function. In general, followers constantly observe their leaders and consequently know far more about them than many leaders realise. Therefore, in order to avoid any hint of hypocrisy, every leader should periodically turn a critical eye onto his or her own performance, both as manager and as leader. This recurrent process of self-examination provides enduring lessons for leaders. The Bible enjoins us to cast out the mote from our own eye before doing so to our fellow. Know thyself! But always remember that leadership and followership exist in an indivisible relationship. Don’t be afraid to ask your followers. One way of doing this is to invite all those affected by your leadership to complete a ‘360 degree’ evaluation of your performance. This will involve people such as your team members, your ‘boss’, your mentor if you have one, leaders of other teams with whom you have to work, and even key clients who know you well (See Note 1). Their responses might be surprising, revealing, and frank. But they will assist in personal development.

    The foundation for success in all fields of endeavour is knowledge and understanding. In addition to essential managerial and technical job competence, successful leaders are keen students of the theory and practice of leadership, and remain abreast of evolving leadership doctrine and methods. Currency in these matters provides leaders with the capacity for continuously, albeit discreetly, applying key leadership performance criteria in day to day observations of work place leadership performance. Thus armed with substantial leadership performance information obtained from personal observation, leaders are well placed to share this knowledge in the personal leadership development of subordinate leaders. Wise leaders know that to share is to grow. Sharing assists in the development of all members of the group, and its effect is a sure but steady deepening of individual leadership skills.

    The quest for feedback is usually given a high priority in tourist and other related service oriented businesses, and it is routinely sought by way of questionnaire. In military tactical training junior leaders have drummed into them a thinking process called an appreciation of the situation. A key component in this process is placing oneself in the ‘thinking’ position of ‘the enemy’ whence one examines critically one’s own ‘tactical circumstances’. In this way, junior Defence Force leaders are taught that they must critically estimate their own operational options, including from the standpoint of the opposition. Similarly in business, leaders should periodically put themselves into the shoes of both their competitors and customers. Most businesses keep a hawk-like eye on their competitors, but many ignore the view from the position of the customer who is too often taken for granted.

    Although the concept and aim of the feedback questionnaire and ‘enemy viewpoint’ element of the appreciation process are similar in many respects, there is one important difference between the two processes. The feedback questionnaire is typically in open question format, is both a voluntary and passive activity for the respondent, and has indeterminate outcomes for the business. In contrast, the military appreciation is a pro-active cognitive process. It guides thinking along paths that identify possible outcomes and frames specific questions to which the leader desires answers.

    The difference between these two approaches can be illustrated using a public transport example. Transportation service bureaucracies might gauge service quality, indirectly, by obtaining feedback from commuter responses to questionnaires randomly distributed at terminals and in buses and trains. Skill in framing the questions and the cooperation of commuters determine the usefulness of this voluntary-response approach. But, the experience of using public transport is a direct way of gauging the quality of service. The personal experiences of a transport minister and senior transport department executives using a range of services anonymously over a period would provide direct insights into the quality of services as well as commuter opinion. So, a critical eye view from the other side would provide a feel for the quality of service as well as first hand knowledge of the opinion of users.

    Leadership is a dynamic activity. Successful business leaders ensure they know as much as possible about staff and front line employees, and show by their actions that they care about the well being of their work force as a team, as well as showing concern for individuals. The knowledge needed for sound management and leadership decisions is obtainable to those who train themselves to observe keenly. A critical eye is an essential component of successful leadership.

    John Innes