Today’s executives are relying more and more heavily on data, to the point that leadership abilities are diminishing, and true leaders are becoming harder to find, says Don DeLash, an adjunct professor at Delaware Valley College’s MBA program.
“There can be a big difference between managers and leaders,” DeLash says. “Neither extreme is good, but as a business executive, you should try to find the happy zone, where you recognize and blend the skills of a manager and a leader. Emphasize your strengths and build upon your weaknesses. What people are doing on the data side facilitates great management, but there is a void on the leadership side.”
Smart Business spoke with DeLash about how to improve on your weaknesses and how to balance the scales between leadership and management.
How does an overreliance on data impact a business?
Don’t get me wrong. Data is a great thing and there is deep analysis of and great belief in information. But as a byproduct, you don’t see the same emphasis on leadership or conviction about management-level trends, industry knowledge and gut feel.
People have a greater fear of taking a leadership approach because when managers make a decision, it can be quickly scrutinized using facts, charts and data analysis. People are more likely today to dismiss a decision or a leadership attempt because the data doesn’t immediately back it up. That makes them more cautious to go off the data and make a visionary decision.
But your competitors have data, too. The key differentiator can be whether they have the leadership.
How can managers become better leaders?
Even leadership has a process. To be a better leader, you first have to make your vision clear to your team. Then you have to align your organization around that vision and get the right people in the right positions. After that, it’s all about execution of the vision and making sure that you continually communicate through the process. Those are the elements of great leadership.
Managers should spend a proportionate amount of time on those things, in addition to the operational data and the results data.
There’s a saying that you can’t improve what you can’t measure. That’s true to a point, but I’ve never agreed with it wholeheartedly.
I’m trying to be a better father, a better husband, a better Little League coach, a better teacher and improve in ways that you can’t necessarily measure. Instead, I’ve tried to measure leadership by creating followership: How willing are people to follow me and trust in me? How often do they seek my guidance? It’s not very scientific, but I don’t think leadership is scientific.
How can a leader teach leadership skills to others?
There’s the question, ‘Can leaders be developed, or are they just born?’ I think leaders can be developed to a great extent. First, leadership is very risky by definition because if you make mistakes, they are very visible. Teaching managers about risk-taking is important — when it’s a good idea, how it should be approached, how to create a fallback plan. Analyzing the risk of your decisions is an important element of teaching confident leadership.
Second is developing communication skills. Communication doesn’t mean always being a chatterbox. The best leaders I’ve known were more about quality than quantity in terms of their communication. When they did speak, you knew it was something to take note of. Quality of communication over quantity is part of great leadership and is something that should be taught.
Today, instead of quality of communication, quantity of data has become the fallback. With electronic data, written data, vocal data, presented data, there is a tendency for businesspeople to fall back on data too much. Henry Ford wouldn’t have gotten away today with, ‘You can have any color you want as long as it’s black.’ He would have everyone in the company giving him all kinds of data and research.
Great leaders have the ability to communicate well and inspire their teams to believe in them.
How can you balance data-based management with more intangible leadership skills?
I don’t think we do a good job as a business community of educating people on decision-making and recognizing where they are in that manager-leader continuum.
We need to rely on data and continue to develop leadership. One trend — not just in business but in society — is that people are much less personal. We e-mail, we text, we have Web seminars. Just 10 years ago, that was not the case. There was a lot more personal interaction.
No one calls a customer or business associate for directions anymore. If you can’t find the address on the Web and punch it into your GPS, you’re Fred Flintstone. This has certainly created a strain on leadership development.
It takes a conscious effort to pick up the phone and talk to somebody, as opposed to dropping them a quick e-mail. Our society is trending away from relationships and personal connections. That needs to be brought back into businesses and schools and emphasized.