It has often been remarked – including by this writer and in this space – that leaders are not just those people who find themselves in leadership positions. Just as captains of sports teams are not the only ones who make the decisions that can create the difference between winning and losing, so chief executives do not have the monopoly on choices of action that can make or break the company. But it is one thing to acknowledge that this is the case or even to claim to encourage all kinds of people to display leadership. It is quite another to actually make it happen or (if you are the person without an official leadership role suddenly confronted with the opportunity to lead) to know that your time has come.
This problem is what Henry Evans and Colm Foster are seeking to rectify with their new book. Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter (Jossey-Bass) is unashamedly practical in concept and execution – right down to including an online leadership assessment tool. Evans, previously author of Winning with Accountability and founder and managing partner of coaching and consulting firm Dynamic Results, and Foster, an academic and executive coach with Dynamic Results, explain that – while management books tend to talk about things readers already know – they want to set out what “you actually do” in the situations they describe.
The situations identified over many years of consulting fall into six categories, suggest Evans and Foster. While they all may present formidable challenges they also provide opportunities to stand out. “We have noticed that people shine most in these moments,” adds Evans.
The six categories are:
1. Get Angry, Not Stupid.
There is a right way to be angry for the right purpose, the authors argue. Foster points out that – while being “authentically angry” can bring an advantage – just being angry can destroy a career or a relationship.
2. Avoid Terminal Politeness.
Foster and Evans recognize that this can be a particular problem in the UK, where in many organizations conflict is suppressed. But wherever difficult issues are being avoided, there is a chance to show real leadership by having the conversations nobody else is prepared to entertain.
3. Decide Already!
This is related to the previous issue and involves a would-be leader seizing the moment and making the decision that nobody else will.
4. Act When You Are The Problem.
Evans and Foster accept that this can be especially tricky. But it is no less powerful if confronted. The person who takes ownership of problems and acknowledges that colleagues avoid telling him or her difficult news or try to bypass them is ultimately in a better position and can help remove barriers to progress.
5. Leverage Pessimism.
Evans and Foster acknowledge that pessimists may not make the best leaders, but insist that the pessimistic view – wherever it comes from – should be taken account of when making a decision. Admittedly, it is difficult to rally people behind a pessimist, but there is a value in all organizations in hearing an opinion that goes against the unquestioning exuberance that characterizes so many business initiatives.
6. Reverse Momentum.
Related to the third situation, this is a call to recognize where the real problems lie and take the required action to make progress. As Evans puts it, “The whole premise of the book is that anyone can demonstrate leadership if they recognise the moment, i.e., by encouraging people who are seeing problems to find a solution.”
The key to the book is that it is deliberately a lot lighter on theory than the average management volume. Instead, the authors have distilled the experiences of themselves and their clients into numerous practical examples and heaps of practical advice for both spotting these potentially crucial moments and then taking the right action. As former exponents of martial arts, they will no doubt appreciate that what they are seeking to do seems akin to the work of a sports coach – helping their charges to choose when and how to apply the skills they have acquired over the years. In the words of Foster, “This stuff is simple. It’s just hard to do.”