Leading, Not Managing August 5, 2014

To be a Great Leader You Need to Take a Heli-View


Picasso once said we are all born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. And he’s right.
In this risk-averse first world in which we now operate we have been forced back into left-brain thinking – simply ‘doing things right’. This protects us and makes us feel safe in an uncompromising world.

But as leaders surely we are on a journey where questions need to be asked? It is said that great leaders ask eight times more questions than ineffective leaders – so start asking some, such as ‘does this really add value?’ Taking a heli-view requires courage and challenges us to think about ‘doing the right things’.

Imagine you’re running seven businesses. Somebody might cut their finger off in a factory you’ve got. It's your fault. You go to prison. You’re the director responsible. But you can't possibly know about the finite details of the health and safety regimes of that factory.


As Peter Senge said, you’ve got to focus on three questions:

  • Is the sense of direction current, valid and communicated?
  • Are the systems suitable for the journey?
  • Are your people correctly motivated to do the right things?

That's all you can do. And, hopefully, nobody cuts their finger off.

There are always times when you need to get involved, but if this becomes the norm then something is wrong. You end up managing the detail and the business is not moving on.

In the UK, when things go right in the UK, we tend to move on. But when things go wrong, we love nothing better than a witch hunt. The search for someone to blame is always 100% successful.

What should you be looking at when things go slightly wrong?

Your own leadership behaviour!

Is the vision wrong? Are the systems inadequate? Do my people ‘get it’?

Always look at yourself when things go wrong in your organization and stop asking the question “Who?’

People don’t get up in the morning and say, "I’m deliberately going to mess up today." They start off the day with the best intentions and think, "Actually, I think I'm going to try and do quite well today." And then, somehow, it goes downhill because of you.

You Must Create followers

In his book Turn the Ship Around David Marquet describes the day he was given his first command, of the US submarine USS Olympia.

In the year before his commission started learning everything about the ship, about nuclear weaponry and nuclear power, He knew every button to press on the ship. He learnt the resumes and service records of the entire crew.

One week before taking up his post HQ changed his ship to the USS Santa Fe; a completely different class of submarine. It was the ship with the worst retention in the fleet, with low morale and poor performance.

The first day, an exercise in the ocean on electric engines, simulating a failure of the nuclear power.

The Captain gives his command to his number two, ‘two-thirds ahead’. The command goes down to the engine room, two-thirds ahead. Nothing happens. Captain looks slightly worried now.

And he rings the engine room directly himself. He bypasses his number two and says "What has happened? We're meant to be going two-thirds ahead." The engine room comes back to him, there is no setting two-thirds ahead.

He said "Isn’t there?" 

"No, sir. Not on this class of submarine."

He said to his number two "Did you know there was no setting for that?"

"Yeah." Says number two.

"Well, why did you give the command?"

"Because you told me to!!!"

And he suddenly realized "Hang on. This is nonsense. I can't know the detail. And this will change again, I'll get another commission, it will change again. What I've got to have is these people following just the ideal of what I'm trying to get to here. And asking me what their intentions are."

So, the summary of the book is, he pushed for leadership at every level, with people coming to him with their intentions.

He never issued an order from that day forward. He just had people coming to him and saying "I intend to submerge the submarine to 500 meters. I intend to go forward at 40 knots," whatever it was.

And he just sanity checked it, questioned it and said "Yes or no?” That's brilliant. So, his people came up to a level and it became the best-performing submarine in the U.S. Navy. And most of those people on board went to get promoted at their own commands. It was the most military ready ship in the U.S. Navy. By issuing no orders at all!

  • That's leadership – doing the right things.

  • And creating motivated people that follow.

  • People that take responsibility for their own actions.

  • People that thrive on ownership.

  • People that just ‘get it’.

That's one view, but what does leadership mean to you?

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