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Stephen Walker

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For most leaders there comes a time when it is time to move on, often for a new challenge, a change of direction or even retirement. But what happens when the reason is all-together less positive? Stephen Walker looks at what happens when a leader loses their authority.

Sooner or later it comes to us all: We wake up one morning with the thought “is it time to go?”

There are positive reasons for standing down. You may feel you have done all you can and your ability to innovate is not what it once was or you may feel it is time to enjoy the fruits of your labour and retire.

But I want to look at the negative reasons. Perhaps you have failed to deliver on your primary task, are not adapting to current circumstances or people have lost confidence in you.

A wise leader plans his or her exit strategy early in their post. Any plan is better than no plan and trying to put together a viable plan in the face of a loss of confidence is virtually impossible.

Confidence


Whatever your politics may be, the position of Gordon Brown, the UK’s Prime Minister, is a classic example of leadership in the face of failure and loss of confidence. The drubbing the Labour Party received in the recent European and local elections showed voters' lack of confidence.

One of the symptoms of failing leadership is a loss of authority often accompanied by the processes in an organisation starting to break down as the rules are ignored.

Three current examples are:

  • A YouTube policy announcement, ill conceived but implemented badly
  • The Foreign Minister making substantial announcements for the Government
  • The u-turn on the treatment of Ghurkhas, with Joanna Lumley making government policy on TV

I am sure you could list many more.

Popularity


Another symptom is to suddenly realise that while you may be the leader no-one is following! Suddenly your colleagues see the need to take holidays, indulge in major projects or just keep out of sight. The visible lack of support is especially damaging when subordinates with significant public (in your organization) visibility fail to give support.

It is true to say that having unpopular ideas is not always wrong! Sometimes the unpopular idea is the best solution to the current problems: unpopular but necessary.

Leadership though is about creating a vision, building an agenda and carrying people with you to work toward that vision.

The UK is facing a severe crisis of indebtedness both private and public. There does not seem to be a vision on offer, other than 'it is a global problem and not my fault'. There's no solution in that vision. The lack of vision coupled with the invisibility of immediate subordinates ensures any agenda building is ephemeral. Is the success of extremist parties in the European elections a sign that a clear vision and agenda is something people desperately want almost regardless of its form?

Vision


As leader, even as those around you hide in the shadows, you still have the hierarchical authority.  You can create the vision and set the agenda because you have control of the resources.

You have the power to promote and demote, to publicise and to channel time and resources into tasks. This makes you a formidable opponent and any challenger faces a daunting future!

The recent Cabinet reshuffle shows how loyalty can be rewarded, how difficult it is to unseat an incumbent and how easy it is to use powers of patronage to disrupt serious attempts at mutiny.

As the disharmony spreads people lower down the organisation seek to take their chances in the unfolding power struggle. Information leaks, whistle-blowers and opportunistic trouble makers blossom in the richly fertilised environment. The leader needs a good ally to deal rapidly with these mishaps to stop them coalescing into a disaster.  You can see who fills that role for Gordon Brown.

The leader has a lot of power, and despite stumbling, can do much to hang on to it. What is needed to survive a leadership putsch is what is needed to make a good leader. Create the vision, set the agenda and marshal resources, but more than anything communicate it.

"One of the symptoms of failing leadership is a loss of authority often accompanied by the processes in an organisation starting to break down as the rules are ignored."


Nothing in this world works without people being inspired, being motivated by being led. You don’t do this from behind your desk. Your job as leader is not to do the detail but to inspire your people to achieve.

History is full of examples of people following wrong ideas persuasively presented. It is true that a poor solution well implemented is better than a good solution poorly implemented. People make the difference.

Exit strategy


Whether you are planning an orderly exit or facing an assisted one, the leader should think of his or her own future and how best to exit.

An orderly handover will always be the best option, allowing time for the new and old leader to share knowledge. The handover period is a good time for the exiting leader to seek to make a new future. The maxim 'the best time to get another job is when you already have one' applies at the top as well as the bottom of organisations.

A wise leader plans his or her exit strategy early in their post. Any plan is better than no plan and trying to put together a viable plan in the face of a loss of confidence is virtually impossible.

Whatever the circumstances any organization needs effective leadership. The leader cannot hide along with his subordinates.

For the sake of the organisation manage an orderly handover as painlessly as possible.

After over 30 years of hands on business and academic experience, Stephen Walker co-founded Motivation Matters in 2004. The company is a management consultancy focused on improving people’s desire to perform well at their work. Motivation Matters works with organisations to improve the performance of their people through better management practice.



 

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