Modifying your approach in short-term leadership situations

Prior to writing their book, Launching a Leadership Revolution, authors Chris Brady and Orrin Woodward sought to determine the best possible definition of leadership. In the course of their research, they discovered over 800 different definitions for leadership. Some of the key terms they found appearing often in these definitions were: mobilizing, influencing, empowering, enabling, goals, vision, relationships, and directing. Certainly, there are other terms useful in describing leadership and great leaders. However, the point is that most of the discussions, definitions, and treatises on this subject deal with leading a group of individuals in the context of a permanent, or at least, a long-term assignment.

Much has been written about history’s best leaders. In fact, a Google search I just conducted for the word “leadership” revealed nearly 5 billion entries! Many books exist discussing the leadership of Winston Churchill during World War II, George Washington during Revolutionary War times, Abraham Lincoln dealing with the Civil War, and others. Most of these works discuss key relationships, trust, loyalty, and results that occurred over the course of years or even decades.

However, these seems to be a scarcity of literature or discussion dedicated to those tasked with leading a team to accomplish short-term objectives. For example, do the same leadership principles that apply to serving as Governor of a state apply to one leading a project to renovate a restaurant over a long weekend? How are the principles of leadership different for one leading a two-month project team tasked with identifying and correcting customer service issues versus the individual that will be leading that same customer service group for the next 5 years?

Before we look at the differences in leading a short-term versus long-term assignment, let’s look at key leadership principles that are the same. For the sake of this discussion, let’s use the definition of leadership published by Brady and Woodward in their Launching a Leadership Revolution book:

“Leadership is the influence of others in a productive, vision-driven direction and is done through the example, conviction and character of the leader.”

No matter what kind, type, or length of leadership situation you find yourself in, certain principles are the same:

  • Influence – Whether short- or long-term, when you lead, you are influencing others. Leaders compel – by their words, actions, efforts, and heart – others to want to accomplish a task. So, even in short-term situation, influencing others is THE key to success.
  • Productive – Leadership fails when the required task is not completed. Thus, regardless of the situation, results are important.
  • Vision-driven – All leadership situations require a vision/goal/objective that team members can aspire to achieve. Someone once said, “When you don’t know where you are going, any road will do.” A vision is required whether the leadership task will last one hour or 100 years.
  • Example – A good leader sets the tone by setting a good example. Whether you want it or not, others are watching the leader. The leader sets the pace, the level of quality, and the standard by which work is accomplished.
  • Conviction – Nothing gets done well without a strong belief that the work is worthwhile. When the leader believes strongly in an objective, this conviction is transferred to other team members.
  • Character – Even in short-term situations, more gets done better when the leader is worthy of following. A group with leader possessing integrity always accomplishes more than one lacking it.

So, how is leadership different when the situation is short-term? Should the leader lead differently for that weekend renovation project versus the long-term customer service team manager?

I believe the leadership for short-term projects should exhibit 7 key differences from those that might serve in longer-term situations. Let’s take a look at each one:

  1. Timing is more critical – Obviously, when you are dealing with a short-term project, you don’t have as much time to develop relationships, build team dynamics, and allow roles to develop organically. Thus, you need to consider short-cuts that facilitate faster responsiveness. Establishing processes for assigning work, reporting progress, escalating issues, and removing roadblocks must occur within hours or days rather than the much longer times that would be tolerable in a long-term situation.
  2. Leaders may have to be more directive, less collaborative – Because timing is more critical, the leader may need to become more direct in assigning activities and timetables. Short timing may require less time for collaboration, consultation, and discussion.
  3. Communication becomes more critical – In short-term situations, communication must accelerate. You must become more clear, more concise, and more consistent in communicating what, when, who, and how things must get done.
  4. Specific action items must be more defined – For short-term situations, “to do” tasks may have to be broken down into smaller pieces. Rather than allowing some ambiguity in tasks, you may need to define actions so clearly that all ambiguity is eliminated.
  5. Progress on critical activities must be reviewed more frequently – In a short-term situation, more oversight may be needed. In that regard, you may need to establish daily progress reports to ensure that everyone knows the status of all key activities and that issues are escalated immediately.
  6. Leaders must be more intentional – Leaders in these situations need to be more visible, more open, and more involved to ensure that timing is maintained. By working more closely with individuals on the team, they can more quickly see your example, your conviction, and your character.
  7. More risks may be necessary – Certainly, by short-cutting some of the well established principles of leadership, more risks are incurred. For example, by shortening the time allowed for discussion and input, you may miss some better options. When you reduce the opportunities for all members to share, you risk group think or the possibility of unknown barriers. These can be mitigated with improved communication and shared reporting.

A short-term assignment does not mean that all time-honored elements of strong leadership must be dismissed. On the contrary, a short-term assignment requires even greater leadership because of the compressed timeline. These efforts often fail because the leader failed to properly engage and involve members of the team.

Think about how you, as a leader, need to alter your approach in the face of short time or demanding deliverables.

(By the way, the book by Brady and Woodward is terrific! I highly recommend it.)

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