A paper I read recently (“What Leaders Really Do” by John Kotter) made a great case that a leader’s value is not solving problems or organizing people but leading your company through change. I have been in senior executive positions for a while now and am sometimes left speechless when someone asks me what I actually do. The paper helped crystalize where I, and you, make the biggest impact on the company. Given all the changes game companies go through (I remember the days before cell phones and when MySpace was the primary social network), the ability to understand and adapt your company to these changes is the most valuable skill you can provide; just look at all the game companies that have failed to adapt to a changing environment, from THQ to 38 Studios to Midway to Oberon to Atari.
Leadership is not management
One important issue to keep in mind with leadership is that it is not management. They are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Both are necessary for success in the game industry (and woefully lacking at many companies). In the article, Kotter points out that many companies are overly managed and underled. The real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management (not necessarily with the same person or people) and use each to balance each other.
Management is about coping with complexity. Good management brings order and consistency to key dimensions like the development process and integration of analytics. You manage complexity by planning and budgeting. You set targets and goals, detail steps to reach those targets and then allocate resources appropriately. Management achieves its plan by organizing and staffing. It then ensures plan accomplishment by controlling and problem solving.
Leadership, conversely, is about coping with change. A leader starts by setting a direction, developing a vision of the future with strategies for producing the changes needed to achieve that vision. Leadership must then align people by communicating the new direction. It does this by helping people understand the vision and getting them committed to its achievement. Leadership also requires motivating and inspiring, keeping people moving in the right direction and overcoming obstacles to change.
Setting a direction
As I wrote, leadership is about driving change, so setting the direction of that change is fundamental to leadership. This direction setting should not be confused with planning or “long-term planning.” Planning is deductive and designed to produce orderly results, not change.
Setting a direction is inductive, leaders need to gather a range of data and understand patterns, linkages and relationships that help explain things. More importantly, this aspect of leadership leads to vision and strategies not plans.
Creating this vision is not about going to a bar in Amsterdam and coming out with something wild; it is a tough and exhausting process of gathering and analyzing information. They do not have to be brilliantly innovative but usually consist of well-known patterns (for example, the evolution of gaming from Facebook to mobile devices). The combination of patterns may be new but even that does not have to be the case.
The most important part of the vision is not its novelty but how it serves stake-holders and how easily it can be translated into a competitive strategy. Bad visions often ignore the needs of key stakeholders (employees, shareholders or even customers) and thus fail when they run into opposition. Also, many visions are unrealistic and thus equally worthless.
Aligning your team
Most employees are tied together by their work, technology, management systems and hierarchy, presenting a challenge when you try to change the way your company works. Unless many individuals line up and move together in the same direction, people will fall over each other. Although this may seem like an organization issue—suited to management—what leaders need to do is align people, not organize them.
Aligning is a communications challenge involving talking to many more people than does organizing. The target is not only your subordinates but also your bosses, peers, staff in other parts of the company, out-source partners, distributors, etc. Anyone who can help (or block) implement the vision and strategies is important.
Trying to get people to understand a new vision of the future is inherently more complicated than asking them to fulfill a short-term plan. Also, regardless of how it is delivered, the message may be understood but not necessarily accepted. The big challenge is gaining credibility, so stakeholders are aligned in achieving the new vision. Empowerment is a key step in overcoming this challenge; rather than telling people what to do, empower them to achieve the vision.
Since change is the function of leadership, being able to generate highly energized behavior is important for coping with the inevitable barriers to change. Successful motivation ensures that your team will have the energy to overcome these obstacles.
Achieving grand visions always require a burst of energy. Motivation and inspiration energize people, not by pushing them in the right direction with control mechanisms and threats but by satisfying needs for achievement, recognition, self-esteem and control over their destiny.
Good leaders motivate people in a variety of ways:
- They articulate the company’s vision in a way that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing. This makes the effort important to those individuals. They also involve regularly people in deciding how to achieve the vision.
- They support employee efforts to achieve the vision by providing feedback, coaching and role modeling, helping their team grow professionally and enhance self-esteem.
- Good leaders recognize and reward success. This not only gives people a sense of accomplishment but also makes them feel like they belong to an organization that cares about them.
Leadership, pivoting and blue oceans
This post highlights your role as a leader in managing the change that companies need to succeed in the evolving game space. I have written about the need to pivot as the market evolves and the value of following a blue ocean strategy to craft the best vision to drive the pivot, but it is leadership that brings it all together and results in long-term success.
6 thoughts on “What leaders actually do”
Great article Lloyd. You bring it down to the very point. Hope many people read this and reflect what they really should do if they are in a position that requires leadership.
Thanks Ingo, hope you are well
Yes. Thanks for asking. Took 2 weeks off starting from today. Need to refuel. Hope you are well too,
Doing great, thanks.
Great Leadership Article Lloyd!