Jo Owen 27 Jul 2017 10:30am

How to define good leadership

If you’re conducting furtive conference calls while you’re on annual leave, you might want to take another look at your management style – the test of your leadership is how well you delegate to those who work for you

The holiday season is a good test of your leadership. Some people are happy chilling out on a hot beach; others get twitchy unless they have over-achieving holidays that give them bragging rights back at the office. As a leader, it does not matter whether you work on your tan or become the first person to pogo stick up Everest, backwards. What matters is what you do about your work.

The art of leadership is making things happen through other people: that means delegating to your team. This is impossible for some managers. You will see them on the beach, or on their pogo stick, checking emails, sending texts and having furtive conference calls that they think no one else notices. If you can’t delegate, you can’t manage, let alone lead.

Being in control does not require wearing the electronic shackles of email and mobile phone 24/7. Control requires that you build a good team that you can trust when your back is turned. Will they make the right decisions while you are asleep? The holiday season is the perfect opportunity to see if you have developed the right team.

Holidays test the MBWA theory of leadership. MBWA used to mean Managing By Walking Around. The idea was to get out from behind your desk and talk to staff, customers, suppliers and partners to find out what is really going on. The theory was popularised by the grandaddy of all popular management books: In Search of Excellence. The theory, like most of the excellent firms the book urged us to copy, has not stood the test of time well.

The alternative theory of MBWA is much better: Management By Walking Away. This is the idleness theory of management. The best managers and leaders have the best teams, which lets them walk away and trust their teams to get on with the job.

This has been taken to an extreme by Ricardo Semler of Semco in Brazil who has essentially done away with management by managers: teams manage themselves and the firm.

The good news about the idleness theory of management is that it really allows you to work on your tan, or on your pogoing technique. The bad news is that it could put you out of a job, which makes your holiday less relaxing or affordable.

If you are going to practice Management By Walking Away, you need great clarity about how you add value as a manager. Even CEOs find this a tough question to answer: the title may be clear, but the role is not clear. The CEO of a start-up does everything, including tech help desk, receptionist, legal work and the VAT return. Any CEO of a multinational who does all of that will fail.

If you want to think about work on holiday, use it as an opportunity to reflect on what you can and should do as a leader. The rule of thumb is easy – you should only do what only you can do: delegate everything else. In practice, that means focusing on the few things that count: picking and developing the right team, setting the direction, managing the politics and securing the resources for your team.

If you come back to work after the holiday and start doing less, you may find yourself doing far better. By stepping back you show trust in your team. Most professionals want to be trusted and will respond positively: they will want to show they deserve your trust. If you discover they have gold medals for incompetence, then you have the wrong team.

By doing less, you also focus on what matters: you focus on the signal, not on the day-to-day noise of management. Like all good leaders, this forces you to focus on achievement, not activity.

As you pack your bags for your holiday, remember the idleness theory of management. It is the perfect justification for forgetting work. Enjoy your break.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)