Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Leadership Flows Like Water (COVID Chronicles)

It's been a hectic week of non-stop work and stressful deadlines.

The sudden surge of workload has left me feeling like juggling knives standing in quicksand. One night, I somehow managed to triple-booked myself with 3 simultaneous Zoom calls. Fortunately, I was able to delegate some tasks away to my trusty circle of colleagues. The weekend was the peak of the week - two and a half days (plus Friday) in the thick of a mooting competition.

By Monday, I was up early by 7 in the morning once again. There's a backlog of delayed work to rush through the week ahead. The snowball of stress hasn't quite receded just yet. The month of August looks set to be quite a roller-coaster ride.

No, I'm not complaining. I'm just enjoying the moment, in fact.

And that's because I've managed to find a balance of what I call as 'flow leadership'.

We can do this all day!

* * *

How do I manage so many different work teams with different tasks at the same time?

The word is delegation. But that's easier said than done. Most leaders either fall under the category of 'administrator' or 'micro-manager'. As explained previously (citing from Frank Herbert), a typical administrator "hesitates, diddles around, asks for committees, for research and reports" and "more concerned with reports than with decisions" because he "wants the hard record which he can display as an excuse for his errors". In short, an administrator tries as much as possible to create a distance between himself and actual meaningful work, so to avoid being responsibility and accountability.

In contrast, a micro-manager genuinely wants to get work done. But he's so worried about things going wrong that he becomes mistrustful of anyone except himself. As a result, he keeps subordinates and allies under a close eye. He checks every single line of documents, looks out for typos, agonizes for hours over simple emails. He's more worried about avoiding mistakes than producing results.

A good leader lacks none of the flaws that plague both types of managers. A good leader isn't afraid of taking on and delegating responsibility. A good leader is both decisive and inclusive.

* * *

On the last occasion, I described my experience with a senior leader called 'Willy' (not his real name). I'm trying to be more like Willy. And doing so has allowed me to be more bold in managing my responsibilities more effectively over the past week so.

Here's some quick pro-tips that I learnt from Willy:

First, delegation requires discrimination. You can't expect, say, a freshie to know how to draft an important budget, or know the inside out an elaborate bureaucracy. An administrator clings on to the theoretically sound but practically naive belief that rules apply to everyone equally, no matter their ability. He's quick to throw first-timers into deep end of the ocean, and later to blame them for failing at a task beyond their capability. His official reason is to "let them learn by experience and the hard way". The real reason, of course, is his laziness to engage and develop lowly minions.

In contrast, a leader like Willy treats every person as unique in their own way. He's demanding but protective. He finds different ways to train and motivate different people. He is patient and reasonable with deadlines. He sees the fall of those under his wing as part of his own failure. By allowing his followers to thrive in their own element and own pace, they often rise to meet and even exceed the fair expectations placed upon them.

Second, delegation requires distancing. No need to monitor a subordinate's every move. No need to harass them for constant status updates. No need to organise long purposeless meetings. However, a micro-manager does all that because he fears the loss of control. He has problems treating underlings as autonomous beings.

In contrast, a leader like Willy knows when to parachute in, and when to duck out. He gives people adequate breathing space. He closes one eye to minor indiscretions - some people need their 'fixes' to get into the 'zone' (e.g. long lunches, flexi-working hours, not checking Whatsapp notifications at every minute). Above all, he doesn't impose his habits on others. So long as they get the job done as required, he cares little when and how they get there.

Third, delegation requires discretion. An administrator rigidly sticks to well-intentioned but ill-defined rules. For instance, roles being distributed based on seniority. A micro-manager creates bottleneck in workflow by jealously maintaining sole control over the approval process. For instance, an entire team of lawyers and secretaries are forced to stay back in office late at night because he has to critically review a 5-page written submission due tomorrow drafted by a junior since last week.

In contrast, a leader like Willy is flexible and emphatetic. Promotion to senior associate usually takes 5 years? Well, not if you're superstar talent working your socks off day and night - a fast-track path is open for you. Having a new baby? No worries, he won't hold you back in office longer than necessary, and allow some flexibility in your working hours. Ultimately, Willy cares more about performance, rather than process. He cultivates the spark of individuality in each of us.

Onward and forward!

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán

* * *

Yet another long and hectic week lies ahead. New surprises keep springing up. Plans and priorities keep shifting.

Thankfully, I'm supported by a super team of like-minded people. They are abuzz with energy. They are unburdened by ego. It's a working relationship build on trust and confidence. I don't merely administer their work, but get down and dirty into the gritty ground work whenever they're stuck and my expertise is called for. I don't micro-manage every aspect of the work, but give them plenty of room to explore and work things out on their own.

There are times where we feel like drowning in work, of course. But everyone stays calm, and keeps paddling as hard as our physical and mental muscles can muster. And eventually, we'll stay float, safely sailing to shallow waters.

For leadership is not some ivory tower atop a hill. Rather, leadership flows like a river through a treacherous jungle towards the wide open ocean. A leader who doesn't get his feet wet is no leader worth saving when he's swept by the rapid waters. A leader unafraid to dive first into the water is a leader worth following till the ends of the world.

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