Lead, Follow or . . .


I have been absent from these pages for a bit longer than usual while devoting most of my attention to finding just the right place in which to settle down and enjoy “La Bonne Vie” in southern France for a few years. That mission is now accomplished so here I am back in the mode of sharing some of the things I have learned over the course of a long career planning, managing, evaluating and supporting economic development projects around the world.  This post focuses on leadership, presenting several of the concepts that I have found to be essential components of effective leadership.

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Lead, Follow or . . .

The cry of “Lead, Follow or Get Out of My Way!” is a popular exhortation of many self-anointed “go-getters” — individuals who fancy themselves as people destined to make good things happen. They are not going to allow those who are not willing to either lead or follow stand in the way of their progress. It is an unfortunate truth in our business that we all must deal with many people who do not fit in either the leader or follower categories. They are more concerned about protecting their position, limiting risk to their career progress and having influence without responsibility. All too often they stand in the way of real accomplishment.

Many (most likely too many) books have already been written about the art of effective leadership. In this post, I will draw on my own experience working with many different professional teams in many different settings around the world to explain my view of leadership within the context of international economic development activities. Do not look for a lot of footnotes or cross-referencing. The following paragraphs will be more in the form of a memoir than a research paper and more of an overview than a detailed exploration of each topic.

I have put a great deal of my energy over the past several years into understanding leadership, and how it is distinguished from management. Developing one’s own leadership skills is hard but it can be done and it is an exercise worth the effort. I  believe that this focus has made me a more effective manager, though I will leave the final judgment on that score to witnesses who are more objective than I might be.

Perhaps a useful first step in understanding leadership in the economic development project context is to understand what it is not. There are of course many things that leadership is not. Primary among those in my estimation (not clear), is “management”. Let me say it very clearly. “Leadership” and “Management”are NOT the same thing. The two words are not synonyms either in etymological terms or in practice. They are not even two sides of the same coin. They are, however, complementary and mutually supportive. Individuals highly skilled in both areas are rare and should be valued highly.

We have probably all witnessed cases of skilled managers who are able to multitask, manage budgets, meet deadlines and generally make the trains run on time, yet – are ineffective leaders who are unable to articulate objectives and motivate their teams to achieve them. Conversely, we have all seen other cases where strong leaders who develop competent and cohesive project teams and articulate clear objectives yet have proven themselves to be poor managers.

There are also cases where, for reasons unfathomable to mere mortals, individuals who are obviously lacking in both sets of skills are placed in senior positions. Perhaps the worst case I have seen was in an anonymous African country several years ago. A new expatriate director came into an ongoing project and asked me which team member he should terminate. He was convinced that he would not be respected as either a leader or a manager until he showed that he was willing (and able) to fire someone. The wheels of bureaucratic justice do grind exceedingly slowly at times but he was gone again after a few months. This person taught me a great deal about how not to be a leader. I admit to taking some guilty pleasure ever since in the role I played in ensuring his limited tenure.

Neither democracy nor dictatorship are concepts of particular relevance to effective leadership. I have heard it said that leadership amounts to no more than figuring out which way the crowd is going and then running around to the front of it. This might be a form of democracy run amok –or perhaps “populism.” Real leadership sometimes must involve motivating people to go in directions they might not choose otherwise. On the other hand, dictators can also be effective leaders once they find the way to move crowds to follow them by employing a mixed bag of positive and negative incentives. Adolf Hitler is the most obvious, though sadly, far from the only example of dictatorial leadership.

There are several key words that I think help to refine the concept of leadership in the sphere of international economic development. I will offer a few words about each below and invite readers to both refine the list and comment on how each is a factor of effective leadership.

Vision: If a man (or woman) doesn’t know where he is going, then any road will get him there. An otherwise strong leader without a clear vision of his or her objective is more likely to lead to a very purposeful wandering around in the wilderness than to the achievement of anything very important. Of course, clear visions do not always involve saving the world or feeding the poor (the Hitler example again) but they do need to involve objectives around which the leader’s followers can make common cause and work together to achieve. Those clear visions (objectives) are then broken down into phases, steps and action plans for implementation as the management role takes over.

Communication:  An effective leader communicates openly with his or her team. Communication insures that team members see how their individual activities relate to achievement of the vision articulated by the leader and tie into the overall team effort to realize that vision. It has been my experience that regular meetings (usually weekly) of the whole project team provide a good opportunity for the leader to communicate with all team members as well as for encouraging team members to share their individual challenges and accomplishments. The effective team leader also communicates freely with team members individually about their specific tasks.

Effective communication is much more art than science. I have personally often had to check myself from communicating too much. Good communication does not mean sharing everything with everyone. Nor is it some kind of management by committee process. The art is to know what it is that needs to be communicated and developing the confidence among team members that the leader is neither keeping secrets nor sharing confidences inappropriately.

An effective leader encourages and facilitates open and creative communication within the project team. It is also essential that the leader encourage communication between the team and others in the project environment (donor, local government, other projects, etc.). This is accomplished by his or her serving as the primary conduit for sharing external information into the project team as well as by encouraging team members to involve themselves in outside conversations as appropriate. I remember one case in which an insecure director of another project tried to forbid his local project team from talking about the project outside of their own office. This restriction, which was ineffective in any case, along with his own secretiveness, created an attitude of mistrust towards that project (and that leader) that contributed to its general ineffectiveness in reaching its contracted goals.

Energy:  Energy is infectious. An effective leader will infuse his or her team with energy – the will and the drive to attack their assignments with skill and determination – by setting an energetic example. It is not accomplished by the establishment of long office hours or by piling on unreasonable workloads. The energetic team overloads itself and takes on that load with little regard for the clock. They have to be “driven” from the office and reminded that families need some of their time as well.

I am always troubled by visiting a project office that is still empty at 8:50 AM and empty again at 5:01 PM on a work day. That does not mean that I think leaders should be slave drivers. People should certainly feel free, and be encouraged, to maintain office hours when they can. An energized office, however, will always have a few people (or more than a few) coming in early and leaving late in order to meet their self-assigned deadlines. I have personally made it a practice to often (not always) be the first to arrive in the morning and the last to leave in the evening and to recognize the extra effort of others who may either arrive before me or leave later.

Strength:  A good leader must be strong and to be recognized for that strength. That strength is exhibited in many ways. Physical stamina is important but more crucial to effective leadership is moral strength. Only a strong leader will seek and consider the advice of others and then make a decision for which he or she is willing to take personal responsibility. Only a strong leader will ensure that team members are protected and supported in their efforts. Only a strong leader will be sure that the credit for team accomplishments is shared with the members of that team while taking the failures on his or her own shoulders. Only a strong leader can correct the mistakes of individual team members without weakening them in the estimation of their colleagues or clients. Only a strong leader can inspire team members and others to follow with confidence even when they may not see the path forward clearly.

Enablement:  Effective managers are often very high-energy multitaskers who are able to take on many tasks and manage them to a successful conclusion. A Type A multitasker is not necessarily, however, a respected leader. I am myself an enthusiastic multitasker and feel that I am most effective when most heavily engaged. Such a trait is very helpful for the person whose profession is performing as a one-man-band – or a consultant working alone to accomplish a research task. Leaders of teams of professionals, however, must put more emphasis on ensuring that team members are using their own skills effectively to address project objectives. There are times when this will mean that a specific task will require more time than it might have if the leader had just carried it out directly. Obtaining the maximum constructive participation of all team members over time is, however, crucial to the accomplishment of many project objectives.

There are several aspects of “enablement” that are worthy of mention. The most obvious of these is probably training – the transfer of skills through formal education programs or one-on-one mentoring. Another important factor is the clear assignment of responsibilities. People must know what is expected of them. Another element not to be forgotten is supervision. The effective leader will keep a close enough watch on his or her team members to offer guidance and support as necessary without micro-managing the activity directly.

Effective enablement is harder than it looks. In some of the projects I have worked in professional team members expected to be given their areas of responsibility and then be left alone to carry them out without much advice and support either from senior management or other colleagues. My own distaste for organizational lines and boxes with firm (and often arbitrary) boundaries makes team members initially uncomfortable since they are, by dint of their cultural heritage, reluctant to share information with others or ask them for assistance. In most cases, however, I have found that the desired synergies develop over time and contribute to overall project effectiveness and to the individual satisfaction of team members.

Empowerment:  Empowerment might be thought of as a follow-on to enablement. Empowerment requires a clear assignment of responsibility and authority to individuals who have the capability of carrying out their tasks effectively. For example, one team member might be assigned overall responsibility for implementing a trade show activity involving multiple clients. It does not mean that the person is expected to carry out the task alone. It does mean that he or she is responsible for bringing together the resources to effectively plan and carry out the activity with the support of senior management.

Discipline:  The responsibility for team discipline has never been my own favorite aspect of leadership. The concept of discipline is a broad one encompassing the obvious avoidance of corruption or other clearly harmful practices as well as the less tangible cultivation of a positive team work ethic and effective communications. Discipline is most effectively exercised through a combination of clearly presented rules (e.g. no smoking in the office) the establishment of leadership expectations (e.g. with regard to intra-team transparency or communication with clients and others) and, most important in my view, a clear example of how things should be done.

The effective leader cannot demand one set of performance standards from his or her team while demonstrating a contradictory set him or herself.  Remember the so-called leader discussed earlier who was determined to fire someone as his first act of taking charge? This gentleman was always the last in and first out of the office – and spent most of his time alone doing things that no one else was aware of. He never knew what was really going on in the office. The major message he communicated was fear. I could write a book about him alone but legal advisers suggest that it would probably not be a good idea.

Support:  The first responsibility of a leader is to support and protect the team. Team members must feel safe in taking on difficult tasks. They must know that their leader will provide guidance and support as needed, either personally or by adding necessary resources. Perhaps most important, they much have confidence that they will not be made the scapegoat for activities that may not work out as planned. Even when working on an individual activity, they are part of a team effort.

Responsibility:  Share the credit, take the heat. The effective manager takes responsibility for the performance of his or her team in the face of external criticism and is quick to share the credit for project accomplishments. The leader might even enhance his or her own position with co-workers, clients and others by appropriate sharing of the credit for project accomplishments.

Recognition:  It is much more important to individual team members to have their stature enhanced by public praise than it is for the expatriate team leader who will be moving to a new assignment in a new locale in any case once the project is completed.

The most important words a leader can use are “Thank You” both in public and in private. The act of showing appreciation for the efforts of others by means of a simple thank you is one of the simplest of things to do – and costs nothing. It makes the endorphins flow and encourages a smile from the “thanker” and “thankee” alike. I have had people tell me that it is not necessary to thank them because they are just doing their job but I do it anyway – not as an expression of gratitude for something special but more as appreciation for their contribution.

Trust:  All of the factors discussed above combine to create the final one: trust. Effective leaders must earn the trust of those they are charged with leading. They must also have trust in those people and encourage the development of trust among those people.

There is obviously a lot overlap among the topics discussed here and a great deal more that could be said about each of them. I thought it would be most useful to lay out the whole picture briefly at this point. Perhaps later, if there is interest, we can take up individual leadership traits and requirements in more depth. Please do provide your feedback in the comments section to move the discussion forward.

I would really like to learn about the experience the rest of you have had with respect to this important question. And, don’t forget to scroll back to the top and sign up to receive future posts in your email box automatically. I promise there won’t be too many and I will try to make them pertinent, interesting, at least mildly entertaining and perhaps a touch provocative.