Most of us becomes leaders, directors or senior managers because we are good at something. The great engineer becomes the Engineering Director. The excellent teacher becomes the head teacher. The problem is that the expert power that got us recognition and respect in our area of technical ability doesn’t always guarantee an effective leader in the organisation. The engineering expert doesn’t always know a lot about sales, marketing or finance. Often the technical expert is ‘a mile deep’, with a detailed knowledge of their own area. Unfortunately this is sometimes accompanied by a mind-set that is only concerned with their own area, to the detriment of the wider business picture. In our T model of leadership we see this as the vertical of the T. The individual is an expert with their own comfort zone.
The leader living in the vertical only concerns themselves with their own sphere of control and can sit through top team meetings oblivious to the concerns and challenges of others until the discussion infringes on their area, where they will immediately defend their patch against all infringement. They may imply that no-one else at senior management level can comment on their department as they do not have the specialist knowledge they have. Topics such as strategy, the external market and finance may be ignored as not relevant to them. These leaders living in the vertical are a mile deep, focused on the short term, obsessed with the operational issues, allowing the urgent to drive the important.
The major challenge is that the organisation needs leaders who are ‘a mile wide.’ Leaders need a mind-set that sees the bigger picture and understands how the various parts of the business fit together and co-operate. The leader has an external focus, understanding the market forces the business faces and how the organisation interacts with its customers. In the T model of leadership the individual must be comfortable sitting on the horizontal part of the T, with a broad view of the organisation. The leader at the top of the T recognises that the focus has to be on the longer term and on the changes the business has to make to deliver the strategy. These leaders see the top team as their main team, not the team back in the department. They have responsibility for the management of a function but their number one priority is the delivery of the agreed strategy.
When working with organisations the major challenge we face is helping leaders make the transition from the vertical to the horizontal. That pervasive force, managerial gravity, pulls the leader back into the day to day problem solving, distracting them from the strategic challenges and eats up their time on managing the detail. It is perhaps unsurprising given how comfortable the vertical of the T feels with its familiar skills, decisions and problems. At the top of the T there lies challenges and uncertainty, new problems, new opportunities that push us out of the comfort zone.That is where leadership development steps in. Very few are born as leaders; most of us have to learn the tools, approaches and models that help us lead people and organisations. Without support, learning and coaching the top of the T will always seem daunting, the vertical comfort zone familiar and safe.