The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology


Leadership: The Elusive Skill

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In cycling, there is the concept of a pace line.  Just as in auto racing (if you’re a NASCAR person) if you inches are behind another cyclist, you’ll save in the neighborhood of 25 to 30% of your energy as the cyclist in front of you fights the wind for you.  That person in front has a lot of pressure.  S/he is the leader both physically and in other ways as well, and everyone behind expects her to exhibit certain skills and qualities.  It’s for good reason too.  One bad move by the person in front, and the people in back who can’t see the road ahead all go down on top of each other.  This is not a complete list, but here are some of the qualities we’re looking for in a cycling leader:

  • First, they have to keep a strong pace.  If they don’t, they will get passed too early, or the line of cyclists behind them get disrupted.  When everyone’s front tire is literally 2 inches away from each other, slowing down can be catastrophic.
  • Second, They have to know when to let someone else lead.  You can’t lead forever – burning 30% more effort means that there is always someone fresher than you are.
  • Third, you have to be stable.  Just as mentioned above, stability is a major part of the safety equation just as consistent speed is.
  • Fourth, you have to call road hazards.  This can either be done with a flick of the hand that most non-cyclists would never see, or sometimes I verbally call out hazards as well.  If you’re behind 3 guys, you literally can’t see the road in front of you.
  • Lastly (probably not last really), you have to be aware of the wind and which direction it’s coming from.  A cycling pace line is not always a straight line – it is often a diagonal line echelon as riders attempt to hide from the wind more effectively.

Management programs always have things like accounting and finance, structured strategy courses, technology, etc.  MBA programs have almost been able to commoditize these courses and structure how to formulate thinking and process in their students minds.  However, management programs have found it harder to teach leadership and actually build future leaders.  As organizations hire MBA’s, they know they will come with the requisite base of skills and knowledge.  But often, the leadership capabilities are completely unknown until mid career.

Back to cycling, I can teach a guy to ride strong, and ride a straight line, and to call out road hazards. But it actually takes experience to know when to let someone else lead, and it takes awareness to know how to position yourself properly so the guys behind you that you can’t see can ride a proper echelon.  For some reason, there are leadership skills in cycling that confound many cyclists – yet they are easy and obvious to others.

We in HR realize the leadership problem.  Most of us have a good set of leadership competencies that we attribute to our leaders and HiPo’s.  The problem is actually measuring leaders.  Sales or production growth is often misinterpreted as leadership.  Similarly, financial management and sound budgeting or project management is misinterpreted as leadership.  I wonder how many of us are correlating employee engagement scores from manager teams to these other measures?  Are we looking at employee achievement and promotion ratios?  Often, it’s not the obvious and quantifiable measures that tell us if a leader if a good one, but it’s the judgment of the employees – those following behind – that give us the best picture.

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