Friday, January 27, 2012

A Brief Discussion about Leadership

It can be said that the world is divided into leaders and followers. There are significant differences between good followers and bad followers, but the general understanding of a follower is well defined and accepted. Creating a consensus on what actions and characteristics typically define a leader is more difficult for there are a variety of opinions regarding essential leadership traits. Leaders are largely defined by their actions in groups and how those actions influence the dynamics of a group. One of the key attributes of a good leader is the optimization of the work environment, both from a personnel and a resource perspective.

Focusing first on the personnel aspect. It is not a leader’s job to promote harmony in the group; while harmony would be nice, the primary obligation of a leader is to make sure that Person A and Person B do their respective jobs. This duty can be more difficult if Person A and Person B do not like each other, but have to work together because their skills and expertise will produce better results. Thus it is a leader’s job to ensure that the disharmony and dislike between Person A and Person B does not interfere with their job performance. What happens if either Person A or Person B allows his/her personal feelings to influence performance? Such a situation is unfortunately complicated because the easiest solution is to remove the individual that is deemed less important (assume Person A for this scenario) from the team and bring in an individual with similar skills (Person A’). Using this strategy the job the released person was responsible for and the remaining individual (Person B) should increase in efficiency with little lost time or resources.

There are two obstacles with the easiest solution: it is frequently only useful in the short-term and it is questionable whether or not a Person A’ exists at the company in question. Person A was assigned to that particular team for a reason, more than likely because he/she was the best individual with the particular skill set, so if Person A’ even exists he/she will be inferior in skill at some significant level else Person A’ would have been assigned to the team in the first place. Therefore, the benefit of Person A’s dismissal must be weighed against the time and resources lost versus the gain of a productive Person A over the Person A’. In short the leader has to consider many cost-benefit questions on a theoretical level as noted below:

- What is the difference in skill level between Person A and Person A’ under normal working conditions?
- Are there skills and/or knowledge that Person A has that Person A’ does not? If so how relevant are they to the task at hand and how long would it take Person A’ to close the gap?
- What is the production drop-off from Person A when working with Person B and visa-versa?
- What would be the production change in both Person A’ and Person B when working together?
- What would be the time and resource expenditure when attempting to reconcile the differences between Person A and Person B?
- How many more projects would it be useful to have Person A and Person B work together (for skill set purposes)?

So although a leader is not obligated to play psychologist between Person A and Person B, he/she might have to for the benefit of the current project or future projects. Clearly the best way to neutralize these ill feelings would be to keep Person A and Person B segregated from each other. If they have to work together it is best to make it clear to both of them that the primary goal is the success of the project, how they feel about each other is irrelevant as success benefits both while failure would hurt both. This approach is necessary in most instances because typically when two people do not like each other to the point that it hurts productivity, that dislike is deep seated and the leader does not the time or resources to understand its origins and whatever may rectify it.

One of the more interesting questions regarding optimization of performance in a group is should the leader lead by example or act through delegation of duties? Leading by example seems to be the buzz phrase for leadership as it is frequently uttered in the business, political and entertainment world. The chief strength of leading by example is characterized by an increase in drive and motivation of other team members for witnessing the leader work directly ‘in the trenches’ to accomplish the goal typically enhances their own will to accomplish the goal.

An interesting element to this motivation enhancement is not any potential increase in motivate, but ensuring no decrease in motivation. Naturally any individual on a team should be instinctively motivated to accomplish the goal regardless of outside factors; however, in certain instances a weak and idle leader can foster deterioration in both confidence and willingness to work amongst team members creating an environment of inefficiency, jealousy and possible strife. Many people will attest that it is difficult to follow a leader who does not appear to do anything. Therefore, avoiding this drop-off in productivity is the primary issue for a leader to take an active role in achieving the goal.

Two main concerns stem from this type of leadership strategy. First, a strong and effective leader can instill complacency in other members of the team. Some individuals may allow a strong leader to perform much of the work either because they are just lazy or lack confidence in their own ability. With this potential outcome it is important for a leader to ensure that other team members are consistently being prodded for their input and are given significant tasks with realistic timetables.

If the leader can take on extra work it is appropriate to do so as long as all other team members have significantly important roles in the progression of the project. Realistically such a strategy should frequently be implemented, but as a neutralizing factor it should merely act as a backup plan as team members should be naturally motivated to succeed and such motivation should not diminish in the presence of a motivated and strong leader. A leader undertaking additional roles is important, but must be tempered with reason for if a leader over-extends in duty, it will have a negative effect in all areas of performance. Over-extension is the second potential drawback of direct active leadership for a leader can misinterpret his/her own superiority and skill based on position or preliminary results, which could accelerate parts of the project before they are ready. Such rapid movement can easily lead to wasted time, resources and damaged confidence among team members, especially if the leader participates in portions of the project outside his/her area of expertise.

Unlike a leader that leads by example who can simply take over the team and literally 'will' it to success, a leader who delegates needs to subtly control the direction of development and how each portion of the project advances. When teams are comprised of confident and competent members, delegation leadership is easy, just make sure everyone stays out of each other's way and slowly funnel information into the overall objective. When teams are comprised of less confident and/or competent individuals, delegation leadership becomes harder because the leader needs to identify relevant yet manageable goals for these members to ensure efficient progress. The main positive in this strategy is that delegation leadership has a tendency to improve the quality of a team faster than leadership by example because the probability of growth by each individual member is greater.

After considering the natural characteristics of the leader, a delegation strategy seems to be superior in situations where a solution will create a large number of new questions that will need to be answered by the same group. The delegation strategy creates a strong and more prepared team to solve the additional problems as long as they remain in the skill sets of those within the team. Leadership by example seems to be superior when striving for an isolated solution that needs to be attained in an accelerated fashion because team unity after the fact is not very important.

Overall the leader must be aware of when to apply one strategy versus the other for maximum results. Maximizing results should be a matter of personal pride for the leader because most people will tend not to care or criticize either strategy as long as the project moves forward in a positive way, but maximum output at lowest cost should always be the goal.

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