Leadership, the consultant’s perspective

02/11/2012 § Leave a comment

Last one! This is the fourth of four posts on The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner, and looks at it from a consultant’s viewpoint. Prior posts took different perspectives: literary, psychoanalytic, and economic. Looking back over them, I haven’t been too supportive. The book has the literary value of a romance novel, the self-help value of a fad diet, and the economic value of a penny tech stock.

For a consultant, though, it’s very useful.

First, it tells you something about the mindset of the kinds of people who consume these books. Secondly, it’s a good explanation of how to provide guidance to a client. Let me explain both points.

Mindset first. As a consultant, you are working with all kinds of people. You have to be able to listen to them, understand the text and subtext of their messages, and frame your communications so they make sense. These sorts of management books are popular, especially with executive and aspiring executive types. They give you a chance to see what the concerns are and what the language is. Then, as a consultant, you can position your work to reflect them.

Using these books explicitly can also mark you as one of the tribe. The Art of War was very popular a few years back. It still pops up, but not like before. One of the stories emphasises decisiveness:

[A]rrangements were made to bring 180 ladies out of the Palace.  Sun Tzu divided them into two companies, and placed one of the King’s favorite concubines at the head of each….

So he started drilling them again, and this time gave  the order “Left turn,” whereupon the girls once more burst  into fits of laughter.  Sun Tzu:  “If words of command are  not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly  understood, the general is to blame.  But if his orders ARE  clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the  fault of their officers.”

So saying, he ordered the leaders of the two companies  to be beheaded.

The Leadership Challenge suggests that this sort of management by punishment is exactly wrong. Instead, team members have to know that it is safe to make mistakes. This increases the willingness to try new ideas, and increases the willingness to identify things that aren’t working and stop them.

When talking with your client, should you communicate execution or consultation? results or process? The management book-of-the-month club will help you decide.

The second way I found the book useful was in thinking about the consultant’s role. The Leadership Challenge describes leading without position or hierarchy. Often, that’s exactly what consultants have to do.

Consultants are external to the client’s organisation, and bring skills and knowledge that the client doesn’t have. They are trying to show the client a new way or demonstrate new thinking. As outsiders, though, they have no official clout, no institutional leverage. It isn’t enough to show up and say, ‘We’re the experts, here’s the answer.’ To be effective (and to be desired), consultants have to lead clients gently. They have to understand the values, align the project with the values, engage the client with the new direction through those values, and the encourage the client to make the new knowledge their own.

I have tended to think of consulting as providing advice. Since reading this book, I also see that there’s an element of leadership. That’s something I’ll want to integrate into my communication. At least until it goes out of style.

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