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Increasing levels of sickness, internal tensions, falling productivity, customer complaints on the rise…it’s obvious that something is wrong so why do so many leaders fail to act? Are they so bound up in getting more sales, in increasing profits and turnover that they just don’t see the problems which are developing? Or perhaps they see employees and customers as expendable and just don’t care? Either way, being blunt, those who preside over a failing ship and do nothing to address the slide have no right to call themselves leaders.
Watching a colleague’s son recently as he painted model soldiers was a revelation. Seemingly completed figures were revisited time and again to add small touches which highlighted the folds of a garment or added dust layers to boots. His philosophy, explained when adding a touch of colour to a virtually hidden seam, was that ‘if you can see the gap then there’s a brush that can reach it.’ Expanding, he explained that he wouldn’t be doing a proper job unless he kept an eye out for faults and that once he noticed those faults there was always a way to rectify them.
Such a simple philosophy, and yet it is one which many leaders would do well to imitate. Leadership isn’t sitting in a plush office demanding performance increases from minions who tremble at your every word. Leadership isn’t being so remote from the rest of the organisation that you haven’t a clue what is really going on. Leadership isn’t even grand lunches or posh cars or a vast salary which is boosted by options and pension contributions.
True leadership is about setting the values, vision and behaviours for the organisation. True leadership is about creating the conditions which lead to employee engagement and exceptional customer service. And true leadership is about keeping an eye out for problems and taking swift action to rectify them. You see, even in the best run ship, things can start to drift away. An organisation’s culture may be set by the leadership but it develops and changes with every action and interaction. One rogue employee or a change in external market forces has the potential to disrupt.
That’s why it is the job of the leader to be ever vigilant. Revisiting the culture on a regular basis, looking out for the clues which indicate that something is awry; and then taking swift action is the only way if a leader is serious about organisational culture and engagement. Sometimes the clues are blindingly obvious. When employees start to leave in droves, when productivity falls, when water cooler moments turn from innovative interactions to departmental in-fighting; then it doesn’t take much to see that something is wrong. But the really great leaders are those who can sense impending trouble before it gets that far. Perhaps by keeping a finger on the pulse, by using intuition, by having a great back up team who are all looking out for changes; great leaders know that if something feels amiss then it is time to act.
More than that, even when the ship seems to be sailing serenely along its path great leaders know that they can’t afford to be complacent. By regularly revisiting beliefs and behaviours, by checking that values and vision are still appropriate, leaders can help to ensure that culture and engagement levels are more likely to stay on track and to deliver exceptional levels of performance. If you can see the gap then there is always a solution, just make sure you spot it before it is too late.