This is Part 5 in a series of interviews with the gurus of leadership and management theory.
Julian Barling is a professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University and, in recognition of his accomplishments in research and scholarship, a Queen’s research chair. A native of Zimbabwe who obtained his university degrees and later taught at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, his research focuses on the nature and development of transformational leadership and employee well-being. In this interview, he talks about how leaders must focus less on grandiose actions and instead get the small-but-important interactions right, mentoring more and monitoring less.
Why do we always look for the leadership we don’t have?
That seems to be a truism, and probably extends beyond the private sector to political leadership and university presidents. We look at the incumbents and instead of celebrating their strengths we focus on their weaknesses. When we select their replacements we aim for individuals who don’t share those same weaknesses. We don’t want to continue with the weaknesses our organization currently has, so we try to patch it up rather than build on our strengths.
When this occurs, it affects the organization. Discontinuities arise as we bring people in and break from the past. That can be good in some cases, but such discontinuities should arise because we have thought about them and want them rather than just an instinct to hire what we didn’t have previously.
Does this come out of envy, or an organizational inferiority complex? What motivates this tendency?
It could be fear. This is somewhat tangential, since it applies beyond top leaders, but there’s a lot of organizational literature on how if we build on people’s strengths we will make them unique, and for organizations to thrive, we need really unique people in the organization. If all we do is keep removing people’s weaknesses, we will end up with a whole lot of mediocre people. No organization moved forward because it was filled with mediocrity. We need to turn the focus to people’s strengths, and developing those strengths, rather than trying to patch up weaknesses.
What other major mistakes are organizations making in leadership?
A key mistake is thinking that leadership is far bigger than it really is – about the big stuff, like major change programs and new strategies. Yet when researchers talk to individuals in organizations – employees and leaders themselves – about what inspires them, it’s usually the smallest possible behaviours from their leaders that stand out. So instead of thinking of what is the biggest thing we can do as leaders, the challenge is to find the smallest possible things we can do that will have a meaningful impact on individuals in the workplace and their motivation to do amazing work.
What are these small things?
It gets back to the basics of human interaction. The guiding question should be: What can I as a leader do to make people feel bigger about themselves rather than finding myself acting in a way that typically make staff feel belittled and demeaned?
Here’s an example: Many individuals will describe how they have been in a situation when they had a brief time to speak to a supervisor or organizational leader, yet in the middle that leader hauled out a BlackBerry and read or sent a message. Overwhelmingly, individuals will point out they feel really defeated by that behaviour.
When you have a minute of two with your leader, you want to feel that interaction is important. Yet it becomes devalued in that manner. By comparison, regular people who have met Nelson Mandela will all tell you that for the minute or two they were with him, they felt they were the most important person in his world.
So figure out what are the one or two things you can do as a leader in such interactions to make people feel they are the most important person to you in that moment. The research literature suggests they will then behave as if they are the most important person to you in the world. But if you demean them, they will likely behave afterwards as if they were demeaned.