Putting the Art of Leadership into Practice (HBR)

For the past ten months or so, I have had the privilege of traveling around North America speaking about what it takes to lead in hard times. Sometimes I joke that if I knew “hard times” would be so popular a topic I would have thought of it sooner; I guess I just needed the economy to cooperate.

Lame joke aside, I can think of few times when the subject of leadership has been more pertinent or its practice more necessary. And I say this with full recognition that part of the blame for the great recession we are enduring rests on a failure of leadership in both the public and private sectors. Those in positions of authority abandoned both the practice as well as the art of leadership. It’s time for us to learn more about both.

The practice of leadership is setting the right example, providing vision and guidance, and doing all that is necessary for people in the organization to succeed. The really hard part, the art of leadership, is knowing what to do, and when, why, and how to do it.

Let me give you an example that was shared with me by Mark Shearon, an executive vice president of TBA Global, an event marketing and communications agency. TBA’s Detroit office had once done good business servicing the automotive industry, but with the recent downturn in automotive fortunes, the office lost a significant amount of business. The easy decision would have been to close the office. But Mark and his team had a better idea that would save jobs. “We wanted to ensure that we kept a Detroit presence since we had been in that community for over 10 years. At the same time, our meeting planning business was growing.”

So TBA re-purposed the office, shifting it from producing events and meetings to doing meeting planning. Furthermore, as Shearon explains, “In Detroit there was a good pool of people with the right skill set for that kind of business and office space is cheaper.” TBA also relocated staffers from other cities and, Shearon says, today has “a buzzing and successful division there.” As this example illustrates, the art of leadership involved saving people’s jobs; the practice of leadership was a sound management decision to create a new use for the Detroit office.

Learning the difference between these two aspects is a good way to get a handle on what is required of leaders.

Practice involves management. For leaders, the administration of responsibility and execution of tasks may not be glamorous, but it is essential. Without a strong attention to detail and adherence to goals and objectives, organizations go awry. At the same time a leader needs to manage not just detail but also people. Managing people involves putting them into positions where they can succeed and supporting them in that effort.

Art involves sensibility. As with so much in life, you need to pick your moments. Not every situation calls for a leader to act; sometimes a leader does more by standing back and letting the team decide what to do. Though, in times of crisis, the leader may need to be front and center, making decisions, providing hands-on advice, and taking action to help get things done. Knowing what to do and when to do it comes with experience, but knowing how to act and the degree of involvement to use is something that cannot be prescribed exactly; it will be perceived by others much as an art form might be.

While there are many reasons to learn more about the art and practice of leadership, there is one aspect often overlooked. Management is a downward process: handling the details. Leadership is an upward process: giving guidance — it is aspirational by nature. For an organization struggling in tough times, aspiration is essential; it gives a glimpse of a better tomorrow, and by extension a reason to slog through another day, week or whatever it takes. And that requires not only practice, but a degree of art to see over the horizon.

First posted on HBR.org 9/18/2009