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Continuous vs. Discrete – a Leadership Discussion

Identify, Define, Execute

Is leadership as simple as the headline suggest? Do you simply identify a problem, define a strategy or a solution to address it and then execute? Is the problem then gone?

I worked in an organization many years ago that had a very strong management culture. Within this strong leadership culture, we also had a clear lack of leadership. You were not rewarded for avoiding problems and potential crisis, you were rewarded for acting when something went wrong, you were rewarded for identifying, defining and executing. On an almost daily basis we were clarifying in our “leadership”-synch who was running with this ball and who was running with that ball and who could put out that fire over there. There was always an emergency somewhere and the internal language had evolved accordingly.

I was there in a coaching capacity, but our roles and responsibilities mattered very little in this environment of constant emergency. I have a very strong emotional memory of one such daily meeting where we were talking about putting out a seemingly large fire and when we were done with defining, ready to move into execution for the day I just had to speak up. This will be metaphorically since I have no recollection of the details. During the discussion on how to put out this fire I had taken a step back, mentally, as an attempt at grasping the big picture of this emergency and asked something to the effect of: -“When we are done putting out the fire, shouldn’t we go talk to this person over here who is squatting down with a lighter and a can of accelerant, clearly starting the fire?”. To this day I find the response amusing. In short, of course we didn’t have time to do that! As soon as this fire is put out, we need to run with all the other balls we have in our possession. I learned a lot in that organization.

man in black jacket wearing a face mask

To continue my line of thinking, management is about applying proven solutions to known problems whereas leadership is helping a group of people learn their way out of a problem. There needs to be a good balance between management and leadership in any organization because the nature of the problems/challenges you face will not be the same. There will be the occasional fire to put out, but most of the time you will need to enable others to learn their way out of the problem.

Discrete vs. Continuous

Currently I’m playing with the thought of a discrete versus continuous approach to running leadership initiatives. A discrete approach is what I call the above-mentioned approach where you identify, define and execute, with the expectation that once you have executed, the problem will be solved, done and dusted. I’m saying that this approach is ill-suited for most of what you face as a leader. I am suggesting that you need to have an overarching continuous approach first and foremost. If you read about organizational development, you are most likely to come across the topic of succession planning, i.e. are we creating the leaders of tomorrow within the organization? This is something all organizations must do. With this as an example, how can we apply our discrete approach of leadership to this problem? I will argue that you can’t, not in its entirety. There is no one thing you can do to solve this. The reason being that creating the leaders of tomorrow is a moving target. It is a multi-layered complex problem to solve. This is where we enter the realm of a continuous approach, where there is a moving target. In a continuous approach the emphasis is on HOW we work in contrast to the discrete approach where the focus is on the WHAT. So, the solution to this problem becomes the answer to the question: –HOW do we work with leadership development of our employees? This how-question requires regular follow-up, tweaking and re-identification as the target will most likely have moved since last, we took aim.

photo of people doing handshakes

In other words, is your leadership team having separate, recurring meetings where they discuss Operational, Tactical, Strategical and People topics in a continuous manner?

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