11. March 2024

Perry Timms: Relearn your approach to leadership

Perry Timms: Relearn your approach to leadership

If there’s one thing we really should relearn in HR and beyond it’s the role, impact and expectations of leadership.

In 2019, I had the privilege of hosting a TEDx event. I introduced a speaker who, at the time, was working at the World Economic Forum. I suspected that it would be a good talk about macroeconomic challenges or how brave we have to be as leaders in the complex modern world.

What I didn't expect is that it would fundamentally change how I think about leadership.

Leadership as a space

Instead, Vijay Raju talked not about leadership not as heroes, a singular act or a sole craft, but as a space that many of us could and should step into. I was really captivated by this and Vijay’s examples and frames of reference really impacted my core beliefs about what leadership is.

The idea of ‘leadership versus leaders’ is too crude as a dilemma or even frame, but I suspect some of you reading this will point to the increase in leaders as demagogues, dictators and dominant forces exerting strong-arm tactics to get their way. And you’re right. 

The hero (or anti-hero) leader is far from extinct and possibly a more noticeable and prevailing force. But there's something in the air. The talk in 2019 was not the start of something new and profound. It was a reflection on the shift that is much needed in the leadership domain.

Managing as a form of leadership

Let’s start with one form of leadership: that of team leaders, more often referred to as line managers. There are probably more of those than C-Suite executives, entrepreneurs or political leaders. 

London Business School Professor Gary Hamel often says: “Who at school, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, said ‘A line manager.’ Answer: No one.”

While this might be true, we find ourselves ascending the corporate ladder of promotions and seeing the hierarchical state of being as a symbol of success. Line management is often the first step. But there’s a little problem with this: The cliché (or truth) is that people don’t leave bad companies. More likely, they leave bad managers.

But let’s not just criticise the managers. They have a tricky job transitioning from colleague to manager. They are somewhat coerced into ways of managing by their manager. And yet, we sometimes promote high-performing individuals who really are unsuitable to lead others and the cycle of ineffective leadership continues.

Such people don’t have bad intentions, I’m sure. They are likely individually brilliant in technical skills, but can they show clear direction to others, inspire them, coach and support them? Can they be emotionally intelligent and compassionate as needed? 

I’m not so sure those are the keys to unlocking promotion to being a manager, but they should be, as is the realisation that leadership is more than technical capabilities.

So we have this dilemma that people should not be promoted purely on business performance (but in practice, they are) and then we devalue or stigmatise that very role which can help teams outperform, nurture future talent, care and fully commit to helping the cause.

Can we all lead?

Now, if we look at leadership as a space, there’s perhaps someone on the team who’s a visionary, someone who helps others at the drop of a hat, someone who can be the master technician and someone who has such a detailed mind. 

They should all lead in their respective space. The line manager's role is tough enough as it is without the need to be across all those areas, so the solution to that is to enable others to share in the leadership spaces you have and need. 

This enables organisations to nurture the strengths in the team so there’s succession, replication, overlap, innovative thinking and a stronger form of togetherness in the team. After all, the role of a leader in any space is accountability, clarity and togetherness. 

These three elements help create outperforming, unified teams. In our complex times, excellent leadership now means creating the space to lead - for you and others, collectively, considerately and confidently.

Perry Timms

Perry Timms

Perry Timms has over 30 years of experience in business change. He was ranked number one in HR's Most Influential Thinkers 2022. He is a guest professor, author, TEDx speaker and founder of People and Transformational HR Ltd. He is also the host of Personio’s Tomorrow's People Podcast.

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