Leaders Don’t Need Checklists

There are two ideas that drive and compel me in almost every aspect of my professional life that I am passionate about communicating to leaders, public administrators and managers. The first idea is that leaders are different and distinct from managers, administrators and supervisors in very significant ways and play very different roles. The second idea is that leaders don’t need checklists, “best practices” or “how to’s”. If this second idea has any merit, why have I written this column and why are you reading it?

The answer is simple. Leaders do something more so they need something else. They need to be inspired to act on what they know. They need to be reminded of experiences and lessons learned. They need to add the insights and experiences of others to their own. They need to consider principles of leadership and their application in generalized ways. They need to sharpen and exercise critical thinking in themselves and in their organizations.

Leaders and Leadership. Managers, administrators and supervisors all aspire to be perceived as leaders and strive, by various means, to gain the mantle of leadership. It seems to be widely accepted, and maybe even intuitive, that a title or position alone does not bestow leadership. The question “Are leaders born or made?” has been debated for generations and has not been definitively answered one way or the other. Many hedge and say that leadership is both inherited and learned and then debate the relative proportion of each. Others feel strongly that the tendency to leadership is imprinted into one’s DNA. A few contend that leadership is totally a learned behavior.

From my experience, I have come to believe that leadership derives from personal character and attributes. It can be refined, enhanced and polished by study and experience but it cannot be learned if not innate in one’s character. On the other hand, “managership”, often confused with leadership, derives from skills and abilities and can be both taught and learned. For example, a successful leader is always personally accountable for his/her actions and those of whom are led and would have it no other way. In contrast, managers can often succeed by avoiding responsibility and placing blame on others.

Leadership can also be contrasted with management by examining what is managed or led. Inanimate objects, such as projects, budgets, tasks, etc, are managed. The skills and knowledge required to manage these objects are the subject of many courses, seminars, books and degree programs. Management lends itself to checklists as the tasks are repeatable and the objects are generally static (or at least inanimate.)

People, by contrast, are led. People are unique, dynamic, difficult to predict and willful and, as such, are poor candidates for a checklist. Leadership is manifest when:

· individuals work as a team.

· the accomplishments of the team are greater than the sum of individual accomplishments.

· those being led willingly do things they would not otherwise attempt.

· responsibility for failure or shortcomings of the team is borne by the leader.

· credit and praise for success is not claimed by the leader but is rather attributed to the team as a whole.

A leader exercises his or her leadership by being self-reflective, by understanding the feelings and motivations of others and by communicating a common vision that unites people to action. Leadership requires knowledge, critical thinking, judgment, wisdom and courage. It often requires standing alone and steadfast against opposition.

Checklists and Best Practices. Can checklists make a leader? Can leader-like behavior be captured in a checklist? Checklists represent a distillation of experience into a set of steps that will always yield the same outcomes without requiring much thought or decision making. The original and classic checklist is the pre-flight checklist developed by pilots in the 1930’s. As aircraft became more complex, accidents became more frequent for no apparent reason. Engineers, after some investigation, discovered that pilots were forgetting critical tasks which were causing the planes to crash and lives to be lost. To ensure that every flight was successful, experts made checklists for the pilots to follow. The checklists solved the problem and are permanently ingrained in the aeronautical culture. Checklists have subsequently been adopted by many other professions and functions as well.

The historical origin of “Best Practices” is not as clear cut or as well documented as checklists. The very title “best” is loaded with meaning. A literal reading of the term implies that a process that has not been deemed a “best practice” is not a good practice and should be avoided. Public administrators and electeds are particularly prone to demonstrate their risk adverse tendencies by latching on to something that has been designated a “best practice.” No one wants to be seen has not adopting something that has been deemed the “best.”

The term has become a buzzword and marketing term for consultants. Who determines whether or not a practice is “best?” There is not a jury or impartial body most of the time that grants the title. It is usually the person proposing the practice. Don’t get me wrong, many practices called “best” are very good and might even be the best—best for a specific time, place, organization and set of laws. That however does not make them “best” everywhere and all the time. Too often the good ideas and best practices of others are mindlessly adopted on the mistaken belief that they are fungible. I have worked with many public entities whose first instinct, when a change is proposed, is to seek cover for not making a decision by immediately querying adjacent jurisdictions on their practices without regard to the potential differences between them.

Today, checklists and “best practices” have become common shortcuts used to get easy results without preparation, training or critical thinking. Leaders are not made nor can they lead by a checklist or by plagiarizing the “best practices” of others. Leadership requires knowledge, critical thinking, judgment, wisdom and courage.

The challenges of today’s public sector demand leadership as never before. We need administrators and managers to step up and fulfill their inherent predisposition to leadership. We need innovative solutions to today’s challenges—not recycled ideas or solutions that were “best” in some other time and place. We need leaders to be inspired to act on what they know and to inspire others to do the same. We need leaders to remind themselves of their own experiences and lessons learned. We need leaders to seek and share insights. We need leaders to lead by principle rather than by expediency. We need leaders to think critically and act courageously.

Scott O. Konopasek has been a public sector manager for 25+ years combined with more than 5 years consulting experience with public entities on organizational effectiveness and transformational change. He has a BA from BYU and an MA in Political Science from the University of Utah.

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Peter Sperry

Sorry but leaders do need checklists. Effective management may not be sufficient for good leadership but it is a prerequisite. Strong visions and inspirational leadership generates support from followers but without good management skills, leaders tend to be nothing more than false messiahs leading their followers over cliffs.

I view leadership as the navigational component of an organization and managment as the engine propelling it forward. The chief engineer cannot steer from within the bowels of the vessel but the best captain in the world will never reach port if the ship is dead in the water. Leaders ignore managment at their peril and I have never met a truly good leader who was not also an effective manager.

Christina Evans

I’m with Peter: leadership and managership are different, but in most situations, both are necessary for real success. I’ll agree with Scott that “best practices” is a problematic term, because “best” is both relative and transitory. Some organizations use the term “successfully demonstrated practices” instead, for that reason. But to write off the whole concept because of a problem with the name is a mistake. Leaders and managers can save themselves both time and money by looking to see what’s working for others, instead of reinventing the wheel. Yes, it requires some thought to see whether the practice is applicable at all, and if so, what adaptations it might require, but advances are made by borrowing from the work of others.

Scott O. Konopasek

Peter– I think of Ronald Reagan who is seen by many as one of the most effective leaders of our time yet few would contend that he was an effective manager too, at least while President. His notorious “hands-off” and detached management led to notable mis-steps for his administration (the nomination of Judge Bork, Ollie North, Adm Poindexter, Iran-Contra just to name a few). Checklists might have saved him from these misteps but would not have cemented his place in history as a leader.

Rob Brown

Scott, I agree with you. The leader should have intrisic almost engrained knowledge of thier goals, motivations, and ethos that are set before him or her. If we were to define the perfect leader, I would agree with with Christina that it is relative ot the individual. Each of us define leadership in different ways, as we are all affected differenly by leadership both in our professional and personal lives. I am assuming that you mean top leadership do not need checklists so that they can use their intimate knowledge of experience and vision in order to delegate to individuals directly and address issues as they arise. It would be refreshing to see leadship go back to the trenches of moral and patriotic martyrdom in order to change the country for the better…..but I will not be holding my breath.

Scott O. Konopasek

Rob Thanks for your observations (thanks to Peter and Christina for their thoughts as well). The statement that leaders don’t need checklists is more a question in my mind that I am still exploring than a conclusion I have already drawn so everyones’ observations are very helpful to me.

I don’t think that we get to define our own leadership or that a leader gets to define it. Leadership, I think, is defined by followers or those motivated and/or respond to the leadership of another. To that extent, I agree that there is not a fixed definition of leadership.

And yes, I do think that leaders should “use their intimate knowledge of experience and vision in order to delegate to individuals directly and address issues as they arise” as you said, however, I would not limit the scope to be only “top leadership” as I believe that leaders are found at every level and leadership is not merely confered by a title or position.

Jay Johnson

A checklist can’t make a leader, but it sure can be a powerful tool if properly used. There is a new book called ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Dr. Atul Gawande. I’ve not read it personally, but I’m heard good reviews. In it the author highlights not only the airplane checklists, as Scott mentioned, but extensive examples from the health care environment. He also talks about the four major killers associated with surgery: infection, bleeding, unsafe anesteia, and the unexpected. The first three are easily prevented by following checklists but the last requires something more.

Perhaps that’s another way of looking at it. Even leader’s has standard or repetitve routines they go through. Maybe 75% of the jobs can be improved using checklists and standardized methods and the other 25% is what really differentiates leaders from everyone else?

As far as ‘best practices’, I’ve recently read a similar attack of the term as it pertained to Project Management. I prefer to think in terms of lessons learned. You learn greatly from your mistakes, but even better if you can learn from other’s mistakes.