The Leadership Context

Excerpt from “Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports” by William Dann (Growth Press, 2014).

Leadership happens at all levels in an organization. However, it takes on different forms and significances at the various levels.

At the top of the organization, the leader is charged with three principle responsibilities:

  1. Clear direction, i.e., ensuring the organization has a strategy that ensures future viability
  2. Safety, i.e., keeping the work environment safe for those working in it
  3. Control, i.e., defining how the organization should operate and then ensuring that it does

Fulfilling these responsibilities gives employees faith in the ability and integrity of their leaders. If any one of these is absent, then employees feel uncertain about their future or unsafe.

Although the leaders at the top of the organization fulfill the first three responsibilities, leaders at all levels within the organization share some responsibility and should be contributing to all these leadership elements. Strategy is not the sole domain of the CEO. Those lowest in the organization are often the best source of information about customer needs and level of satisfaction. This is vital information for the development of sound strategy. In high-performing organizations, leaders at all levels participate in strategy development.

Front-line supervisors and their employees know best how to design processes to get defined results efficiently and consistently. The front line plays a vital role in defining and maintaining order by designing sound methods or processes. Inefficiency or inconsistency of results constitutes disorder.

At all levels of the organization, leaders are charged with a fourth responsibility, which is that of developing the full potential of their employees. This responsibility often is called “supervision.” The demands and methods for supervision are the same at each level. The variation lies in the abilities and confidence of the employees (what Ken Blanchard calls Development Level) and not in the level on the organizational chart or functional area.

Understanding the elements of leadership at various levels can help put the 7 Questions that are the subject of “Creating High Performers” in the proper context. Let’s look at them a little more closely.

Elements of Leadership

1. Direction. In essence, followers look to leaders for a strategy that assures future viability and prosperity. Strategy involves assessing the outside environment and defining any needed changes that meet opportunities/threats, thus ensuring that the products or services of the organization (be they for-profit or nonprofit) are considered value-added to paying customers, donors, or grantors. At best, it means defining and executing on innovations that keep you ahead of your competitors. The strategy needs to be clear to and supported by followers who understand how their own efforts contribute to future viability. Belief in the future, a sense of mission, and faith in leadership is the outcome of effective direction.

The distinction here is that at the top of the house, direction really entails strategy. In supervision that occurs at all levels, direction means defining priorities, setting goals, and teaching/coaching on task completion.

2. Safety. Employees need freedom from external threats in order to contribute their full potential. Safety entails an absence of political intrigue, lawsuits, regulatory threats, and abusive management practices. At best, it means the community views the organization as a good citizen. Employees feel free to innovate, to be honest in their communications and to engage with management to solve problems. Alternatively, an atmosphere of treachery will suppress these contributions.

3. Order. At its essence, order means ensuring that what is intended is, in fact, carried out. Order consists of both clarity and consistency. It means that effective routines are established and there is sufficient certainty in the workplace. Employees are not anxious about random changes that are disruptive. Processes are clear. Lines of authority and communication are clear. Rules are clear and consistently enforced. Employees know their own responsibilities and what they can expect from others they must team with in order to produce the needed results. Productivity is the basis of morale. Order versus confusion is vital to productivity. The tough part is ensuring that all these policies and processes are adhered to. Without it, leadership integrity is eroded, cynicism germinates and the organization underperforms.

4. Supervision. At all levels, those charged with supervision responsibility are charged with bringing to fruition the full potential of their employees.

Another early influence in my thinking on management was Louis Allen. In his self-published book, “The Louis Allen Principles of Professional Management,” he made the distinction between “technical work” (delivering results to customers) and “management work” (delivering results for customers through others). In Allen’s model, “management work” consists of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling. Essentially, these are the same elements that are described above. Allen sees management work as being done at all levels of the organization. At the top, a leader’s time should be spent almost entirely on management work, whereas at the bottom, the time may be more of an even split between technical and management work. For example, the supervisor in a hospital laboratory may be performing some tests in addition to planning work, supervising, and the like.

The distinction Allen makes between the two types of work was a real “aha” moment for me. What I saw was that “management work” was overhead. It adds to the cost of the product or service. If an organization can manage effectively with less investment in management work, it will be more profitable or be able to deliver more service. Then I saw that if I were doing management work, but that work did not result in better results from my employees, then I was not adding value. I was purely an expense that added no value to the customer or the organization. It was at that point that I took supervision much more seriously and focused my learning on the question, “How can I do a better job of unleashing the potential of those who work with me?” This became a lifelong journey of learning for me.

Supervisors don’t often think in these terms. It is a subtle, but important, difference to distinguish between “How I can do more to get more?” vs. “How can I get more?”—“more” being a higher level of performance from employees. The key lies in understanding what the supervisor vs. employee is responsible for in achieving good performance. The 7 Questions are intended to aid you in gaining that understanding and acting on it.

Excerpt from “Creating High Performers: 7 Questions to Ask Your Direct Reports” by William Dann (Growth Press, 2014).

William Dann is founder and president of Professional Growth Systems, LLC, in Anchorage, AK. For more information, visit

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