Set the context; manage the energy; coach don’t play

It may seem a tough call. Yet if you are seeking agility and pace in your organisation, I actually think leadership is pretty simple. It’s not in any way easy. ‘Entrepreneurial’ leadership can be defined in the three phrases of the global entrepreneurial performance experts Shirlaws: ’set the context’, ‘manage the energy’, and ‘coach don’t play’.

Longing for the endless immensity of the sea
As a leader, setting the context for your organisation is your most vital function. In this sense, context is ‘why’ something needs to be done and not what or how it can be achieved. Contexts clarifies strategic direction and allows your team to deliver it – whilst your time and energy is freed to pursue opportunity and growth. Reed Hastings the CEO of Netflix understands how to lead creative and innovative people to perform. “The best leaders” he says “get great outcomes by setting the appropriate context, rather than by trying to control their people.”

Context also creates agility by speeding up decision-making. Particularly in this phase of the Cycle, as leader you must be decisive even if you are uncertain. Getting clear of your context can help. Sometimes you will be wrong but as John Kennedy observed “there are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”

If you set the appropriate context and give talented people the autonomy to act within it you will be amazed at the results. Ajaz Ahmed. Who has built AKQA into a global brand agrees “ If you hire good people, you have to let them make decisions. We have zero committees at AKQA and an entrepreneurial environment which means decision-making is as autonomous as it can be. Hire good people who share your values, provide clarity in what needs to be done, trust them and give them independence to do their jobs”.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery frames this concept rather lyrically when he says “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea”. That is ‘the why’.

Then have the confidence of your convictions. Trust your instincts – they will often be right. Steve Jobs once said “never let the noise of other people’s opinions drown out your own inner voice.”

Forgetting Shiela’s daughter’s wedding
So what of the second key aspect of business leadership; managing the energy? This should be the task of any leader. It requires your constant attention. This is not an easy thing to do. Of course, you are allowed a day off. You are not allowed an off day.

We’re all familiar with seeing sports stars who sweep past fans waiting patiently for an autograph. Perhaps they are having a bad day but we imagine we would never behave like that. But most of us behave like that only too often. We’re stressed, or late, or distracted and sweep through the office in our own world. We ignore staff, forget it was Sheila’s daughter’s wedding last week… We fail to manage the energy of our team.

Uncomfortable though it may be for us as leaders, our team expects us to inspire them. To allow them to always be their BEST requires you to manage their energy – and not the other way round.

You are not in mid field, feeding forward. You’re on the touchline
And what of ‘coach don’t play’. That simply means you acknowledge that you are not on the field anymore. In Dan Pink’s words in the great book Drive, you have created a culture of real autonomy in your people which allows you to support and develop their mastery.

Best of all this starts to create an agile business, a business that is independent of you, a business with scalable value. It frees up your time to focus your energy and talents on seizing opportunity and on driving scale and wealth in this growth economy. It’s also a lot more fun.

The Secrets of Seven Alchemists by John Rosling is published by Harriman House in August 2014, priced £16.99.

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