When you talk to leaders, especially when they are new in post, they are often exasperated because they think they are spending too much time MANAGING instead of LEADING. Despite their best efforts they are being sucked down into the issues facing individuals in their senior team. They are not, they say, getting enough time to focus on the future of the organisation, to communicate its direction, to inspire. They are being tactical when they ought to be strategic.

It is a self-evident truth that of you are guilty of what we call DROP-DOWN MANAGEMENT (essentially, helping people to make decisions which they ought to be able to make for themselves – aka doing their jobs for them) then they are failing and so are you. End of. Lots of changes needed.

But if you are helping your team to make the best possible decisions when the going gets tough, or when the way forward isn’t clear, then you are leading them. The best leaders have always done this; arm around the shoulder, in the shit together, questioning, encouraging, making the really big calls if they have to

There HAS been a change though, accelerated by the pandemic and persisting in its aftermath – and it’s a subtle one. Leaders need to be more like the best wartime journalists, embedded with the forces, AND like generals behind the lines (think Orla Guerin meets Sir Patrick Sanders.)  Visible and invisible. Observing, hearing, seeing the emerging pattern. They need to be both on the ground and mapping the landscape. This complicates leadership – and, we believe, improves it. Look at the current TV advertising for army recruitment; it is all about teamwork, listening and making decisions in tricky circumstances.

Leadership has always been about knowing when to manage and when to lead. The back-and-forth is normal – there is just more of it now. Continually asking yourself ‘Am I Leading?’ will lead to some complicated answers – but it’s the right question. Perhaps the current conversation about the declining quality of leaders in public life is best answered like this:

Leadership is more difficult than it used to be.