In my perfect world leaders would not be umbrellas for their teams.
The classic modern organization is hierarchical. The hierarchy provides understandable order, a default span of control, and easily created tribes. In a hierarchical world leaders can talk about ‘their team’ and thus have a distinction between internal and external communication, decision making, and often, culture. One of the common definitions for a leader’s role in such a system is protecting their team. From whom? From the rest of the organization, from the management chain, and from customers. So leaders resort to acting as buffers and blockers of messages, requests, and requirements sent to their team from various stakeholders. This is often referred to, pardon my French, as ‘the shit umbrella’.
But what happens when leaders can’t contain things completely and some of the messaging, requests, and requirements trickle through? Then what you have is a leaky shit umbrella, which doesn’t sound like much fun at all. Because the parts of the message that did trickle through tend to be random and they seem to the team as arbitrary and lacking any context. Team members, who up to this point thought they were doing the right thing, suddenly get exposed to complaints, anger, and dissatisfaction. This sort of random leak causes the team to feel like they are not set up for success since they had no idea these messages, requests, and requirements were out there and hence did not have a chance to address them.
So why not just be a better buffer and make the shit umbrella not leak? Because leaders are humans too and they don’t really have a shot of hitting a 100% cover for their teams. Leaks are simply inevitable.
In my perfect world leaders are creators.
I do not believe in the umbrella as a model. Leaders are not supposed to be pipes for messages and requests – they need to be creators. Creators of vision, creators of frames, and creators of priorities. It doesn’t matter that they actually use what they get from their management chain and from the rest of the organization as input. When they deliver a message to their team it should be a message they created and one that they wholeheartedly own. Instead of trying to block and tackle, leaders should create and communicate a mental model of the world. The big upside of taking this creation-based approach is that it seems to draw people in and serve as a leadership boost. Teams tend to follow leaders who have compelling messages that are clearly their own. Conversely they tend to ignore or bypass leaders who only serve as conduits.