If you want to be a good leader – mind the gap!

Every organisation has a story.  Some stories are great and some are just, well, yarns.  What makes the story of an organisation great is how well it manages the inevitable gap between what it says and what it does.  It’s about congruence.

john cotterIt is normal for a gap between talking the talk and walking it to be present in any organisation to some extent.  This gap is not a static thing.  It changes as organisations change.  Therefore, at times the gap can be negligible, i.e. only a minor discrepancy exists, which means that the broader culture of the organisation is strong enough to keep the organisation flowing.  But, at times the gap can be a cavernous hole where the actions bear little resemblance to the content of the formal story.

Some gaps are the result of industry-wide or even market-wide factors.  A good example is this; most businesses claim they have committed, dedicated, motivated, engaged staff.  This is a good thing to promote.  Except it’s generally a lie.  We know that most companies in western economies operate with low levels of employee engagement.  In fact, the majority of staff are not engaged.  But because this condition is market-wide, we seem to think it is okay to with the flow.  How costly this becomes to a business is another topic.  For now, let’s return to the gap.

One thing I have learned over the years is that any gap, even if huge, can be managed and narrowed if the right leadership is in place.  The first criteria for proper leadership is a clear commitment by key leaders to put the business’ interests first.  These are leaders that understand that a team is bigger than one single player.  That is by far the hardest thing to sustain.  And it is here that the gap actually starts to develop.  It doesn’t originate amongst general staff.  The root cause of the costly gap between what an organisation says and what it does starts with a simple crack in leadership quality.  As I say, it’s a crack.  Which means it is not easy to spot.

Gaps in organisational culture that are reflected in a difference between its formal narrative and its real culture are created by individuals.  So it is vital that we pay attention to people.  Resumes often do not reveal much.  Most resumes read like a compilation of “greatest hits”.  How well one can spot a crack, that can later develop into a gap, which in turn can find its way into the day-to-day culture of a business can be the difference between being competitive and struggling all the way.

Not all gaps are the same.  Some can be tolerated.  There are times when gaps can be patched up – most often with some light marketing, people focused training etc.  But consider this; as we become more accepting of cracks or gaps, we also start to create conditions for long term issues which, as irony would have it, emerge when we can least afford them.  The key then is to examine the culture of the organisation and ensure that it is serious.  Actions and words align.  That is the most overlooked aspect of a failing business.  Conversely, every time we examine a great success story in business, sure enough we find that congruence is buzzing a perfect tune.  So, to make a business be the best it can be, its best self, business managers must be the best that they can be.  And for that, I recommend that they mind the gap.