Tom Peters recently offered a provocative tweet, indicating that he would like to banish the words “charismatic” and “vision” from our concepts of leadership. “Thinking ahead is great,” he maintains, “but it becomes more than it is when you sprinkle Holy Water and enshrine it as Vision.” So what is leadership if not grand Vision? Peters asserts, “Excellence is about what you do in the next five minutes. Or not.”
There’s a very important issue here: Leadership as excellence versus leadership as vision. Excellence in the service of shared values and a mutual sense of purpose is different from the top-down definition of lofty end points by powerful and/or charismatic figureheads. Think about free economies and those run by tight central planning. Free economies have created a digital revolution by pursuing excellence in technology and design. No amount of decrees from central planning boards could have generated that revolution.
Peters’ insight is applicable to self-leadership as well. Too often we attempt to guide and motivate ourselves with ideas sprinkled with Holy Water, drawn from the latest self-help gurus. Could it be that our own individual excellence offers greater foresight than any grand, rationalized Vision?
Lessons From The Coaching Of Professionals In Finance
Early in my work with portfolio managers, traders, and other money managers, I hit upon the idea of anchoring that work in the creation of personalized business plans. The idea was treating each trader as a business unit and targeting goals for the coming year based upon a thoughtful analysis of such things as strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
I found that many traders were interested in conducting their own SWOT analyses and generating a vision of the coming year’s success based upon how they would pursue opportunities via strengths and navigate threats and weaknesses. Indeed, this work led to weekly goal-setting processes that helped translate business plans into daily and weekly priorities. By the end of these efforts, money managers were pumped for the coming year.
The problem was the classic dilemma of the military leader: few plans survive the first contact with the enemy. The opportunities and threats of 2014′s quantitative easing, for example, were quite different from the Grexit and China opportunities and threats that have emerged during 2015. Not only did grand, visionary business planning become irrelevant as drivers of financial markets shifted; the grounding in those anointed plans helped keep traders from nimbly adapting to the changing environment.
At a more granular level, I found in talent recruitment that the portfolio management candidates who spoke most about passion for trading, conviction in their views, and the setting of lofty goals were the ones most likely to blow up in their subsequent trading. The successful new hires were the ones who spent the most time detailing their trading processes and best practices. Their success called to mind the bumper sticker that reads, “Forget world peace. Visualize using your turn signal.” They were all about excellence in execution, not rainbow chasing.
This dynamic was especially noteworthy among the teams that I worked with. The excellent teams were characterized by shared values and workstyles, as well as complementary skill sets. They focused on how they could improve research processes, generate better ideas, and manage positions better. They rarely talked about grand strategy, and the leaders were far more likely to demonstrate interest and engagement with team members than persuasive charisma.
In all, the least visionary market participants were the ones most likely to demonstrate foresight in adapting to fresh market challenges. Seemingly, the grounding in a vision for the future impeded the recognition of the future that ultimately emerged.
Management By Excellence
The recognition that achievement was more a matter of bottom-up excellence than top-down “leadership” led to a radical shift in my work with traders. In place of business planning, we focused on reverse-engineering daily and weekly successes, deriving best practices from ongoing performance. This solution focus started with the premise that what we need to do to succeed in the foreseeable future is grounded in what we are doing superlatively here and now. The concept of vision anchors the future in something external. Far more powerful was helping money managers see that the success of their futures could be found in what they were doing at their best in the present.
Again echoing Tom Peters, this idea of managing by excellence required that traders become their own leaders, not the followers of others. If excellence is to be found within–in one’s own best practices–then the goal is to become a purer version of yourself, not someone or something else. When people buy into goals that are intrinsically derived, they become engaged in the workplace: productivity flows naturally from meaningful aims. When goals and visions are extrinsically imposed, people are less likely to buy in–and the result is a disheartening absence of engagement and productivity.
If we are managing by excellence, our focus becomes the successes of each person, each team, each business unit. At some points in time, no matter how fleeting, each of us is already the person we need to be to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Effective leadership, whether of ourselves or others, requires that we need to discover that person, turning moments of excellence into templates for ongoing performance.
Leading By Managing
Henry Mintzberg, in his excellent text Simply Managing, observes that the most effective managers are those that immerse themselves in the details of the business, not those who retire to the corporate suite to plot sweeping strategy. Managing, he points out, is not something different from leadership; it is in the management of daily challenges that we plot our future course.
How can this be? The research of Dean Keith Simonton on creative genius is most relevant here. Eminent scholars, researchers, artists, and writers, he found, do not produce a higher proportion of successful works than their less eminent colleagues. Rather, they produce many more works and so are more likely to generate a few that achieve eminence. In other words, it is through the daily process of creating that they hit upon works of eventually recognized creative merit. They do not begin with fully-formed creative visions and then realize them; producing ordinary works is an essential part of the process of generating extraordinary ones.
In the Simonton sense, success is an evolutionary process. We produce, and some of those productions have survival value; others do not. When we manage by excellence, we produce a great deal–and we learn what is of ultimate value and what is not. In no small measure, we discover the future; we don’t define it. Effective management guides that discovery process–and that is the most empowering leadership of all.
By Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.
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