Leadership As a State of Mind

Until recently I was a partner in a large global management consulting firm.  There were two different global Managing Directors during the nine years I was there and their leadership impact was dramatically different. 

By nature, a management consulting firm has a strong centrifugal force which throws the consultants into airplanes, out of offices to client sites,  leaving face to face time with the firm’s management leaders at a premium. It might be only once a year at a partners meeting that a personal exchange might happen with the global Managing Director.  And while local office management (of which I was also a part) was more accessible because of reasonable geographical co-location, the degree of face-to-face exchange didn’t happen much more frequently. With email, teleconferences and occasionally video being the primary communication links between the firm’s professional staff and top management, the content, tone and volume of what was conveyed through these media became very instrumental in terms of the impact it would have.

Between the two leaders I am referencing here, there was an interesting contrast in leadership impact.  One leader rarely communicated, and when he did, it came across as ad hoc and not tied to any specific milestone such as launching a new year or winning some new large client work. It also lacked substance – a lot of words but no concrete message that was leaning into the future with some focus and direction. There were also long gaps between communications so during these times various stories would circulate informally about decisions that we would hear this particular leader would make or avoid, and it had the impact of bewilderment at times and disgust and frustration at other times. This obviously diminished the level of respect this leader garnered. In short we didn’t listen to nor respect him. 

 In contrast, the other leader communicated frequently, clearly, and at important milestones.  His messages conveyed a grasp of the issues and challenges going on in the market and within the firm and what we needed and wanted to do to move into the future.  There was clarity and conviction in his messages. So we listened. One was ‘on the job’ and the other wasn’t. With one I had the feeling I was being led somewhere and the other I didn’t.

I believe that employees in large and geographically dispersed organizations have the same experience as I am describing with respect to their CEO and his/her senior management team.  Inherently we ‘know’ if our senior leaders are ‘on the job’ and if we are being led and taken somewhere, even if we never meet them personally.  Same applies for our political leaders.

 So what is the message here for those reading and who are in leadership positions? You can’t hide.  Pay attention to the quality and quantity of your “presence” everyday and communicate with empathy and understanding for the issues and challenges that employees are facing.  Make sure your comments have a line of sight to the vision for the future.  Or, step down and let a real leader take your place for your sake and those who are following the position you are holding.

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