When reflecting on the leadership roles I held in the past few years. I discovered that nearly everything I did as a leader could be split between short-range and long-range tasks or items. Neither was exclusive with the other, and both were necessary elements of my role as a leader. Nevertheless, juggling between both sets of tasks was not always easy and is one reason why leadership is hard.
Let’s explore these concepts of short-range and long-range leadership in more detail.
What do I mean by short-range and long-range leadership?
It is important to note that these concepts, of short-range and long-range applies to virtually everything a leader does. Every leadership action from dealing with communications to attending events to analysing performance is divisible into both short-range and long-range elements.
Short-range leadership encompasses the essential tasks and actions that every leader must do in their situation or position. A lot of short-range tasks happen at frequent and often predictable intervals. In my case, it included planning weekend training events or large business meetings attended by hundreds of people. The content and delivery of these meetings could set the tone for the entire year. Additionally, they played an essential part in building the cohesion and esprit de corps of the wider team I led. Monitoring performance and becoming situationally aware of how the whole organisation is doing is another facet of short-range leadership. Without this, it is impossible to know what is happening and making decisions can become significantly more challenging.
A final aspect of short-range leadership is our relationships with immediate team members. All these essential tasks and actions will mean dealing with a large amount of communication, something which we will explore in more details later. Short-range leadership focuses on what is predictable, essential and whose impact is immediate and clearly defined. In essence, short-term leadership is operational.
Long-range leadership is on the other hand, not as essential, and leaders can even choose to ignore it completely. Yet, it can be far more impactful than short-range leadership, though its impacts will be far more challenging to measure. Unlike short-range leadership focus on doing things. Long-range leadership is more abstract and focuses on thinking, influencing and imagining things. Long-range leadership will cut across hierarchies, established teams and structures. It will also impact an organisation much further from its leadership team or core than short-range leadership.
A fantastic example of long-range leadership is developing strategic plans which analyse how an organisation is doing in-depth. This exercise always involves a degree of abstraction from existing realities and seeks to imagine what can happen differently. Another example of long-range leadership is reaching out to others to build new leaders and promote talent, in the organisation.
The concept applied to leadership communications
A great place to see both concepts in action is with leadership communications. A daily routine for me as a leader is dealing with a large amount of communication. This includes phone calls, emails, direct messages, and even delivering a short speech or presentation at an event. I would say that I spend at least a couple of hours every day on communications. A year ago, when I was leading an organisation of 5,000+ members. Solely focusing on communications would have been almost enough to fulfil my role and do my job. However, not every email, call or meeting is of equal importance, and the communications leaders deal with can be neatly divided into three categories. Of these, the first and second categories of communications are part of short-range leadership. But the third category belongs to long-range leadership.
Firstly, we have routine communications, which represent the majority of communications leaders deal with. Routine communications include dealing with colleagues and peers; collaborating on tasks and sharing updates. Secondly, we have unexpected communications, which can be summarised as fighting fires or dealing with unexpected situations. Communications arising out of the unexpected can consume a lot of time if they are not handled quickly and carefully. This is especially the case when internal or external conflicts arise and could affect an organisation. Thirdly we have impactful communications. Impactful communications provide opportunities to make an impact across the entire organisation and may have a massive audience.
This impact could be persuading or inspiring others to work towards a common objective. Equally, sharing information and building awareness of an initiative or new developments can also be very impactful. Keynote addresses, video messages, town-hall events and newsletters are examples of this third category of impactful communications. Why? Because their impact and range will extend beyond the leader’s immediate team and transcend hierarchical boundaries. Moreover, all of these channels provide leaders with opportunities to create change.
It is interesting to note that a leader could choose to ignore long-range communications completely. Bureaucratic leaders who focus on operational excellence and steadying the ship could use this approach. This approach can give rise to complacency and additionally doesn’t work well in a time of crisis. On the other hand, short-range communications cannot be fully ignored. Why? Because any team will lose cohesion and any sense of shared purpose if its members stop communicating. Finally, any organisation will grind to a halt and stop working if its leadership team is incommunicado.
How to balance short and long-range leadership?
This question is not easy to answer, and my personal experience is that it depends on a lot of factors. Some of these factors are external and will depend on the environment in which the leader operates. Other factors will depend on the leader itself, his or her leadership style and even their ability to plan and organise their time.
It is important to remember that a leader opting to focus only on short-range leadership can still achieve success. As I explained in a previous article on paths not taken, leadership is about showing the way to a group or an organisation towards an objective. If a goal established some time ago is still relevant and still inspirational today. Then there is only a limited need to change everything. What is more, the group or organisation will already have a strategy in place, and a shared sense of purpose will already be present. In this situation, focusing on short-range leadership only could be a perfectly valid option. Focusing on short-range leadership will also guarantee that what needs to happen will be done. In my opinion, any organisation or group should fulfil the core tasks or expectations attributed to it. There is, after all, no point in trying to achieve the impossible or make an impact if one can’t get the basics right.
Looking back on the leadership roles I have held and my experience. I wish that I had done a better job at balancing short and long-range leadership. There have been many occasions when the flood of communications, dealing with conflicts took precedence above everything else. During these times, I got sucked into short-range items, planned events and indeed short-term considerations. However, I equally recognise that my major leadership successes were all around long-range leadership. I consider having the core strategies, goals and initiatives of my year as District Director ready to go a month before my term started. To have been one of my greatest leadership successes to date.
This event happened because of the large amount of creative work, strategic planning and deep thinking taking place in the preceding 18 months. My communication style additionally lent itself well to focusing on impactful long-range communications. Nevertheless, overall I still wish I had focused more on long-range leadership and earlier. My biggest mistake was not to build more teams on systems to shift some short-range work away from me and create more time for long-range work or even more work in general.
What about leading in a time of crisis?
While one might think that leading in a time of crisis is all about short-range leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth, since crises will challenge the status quo and will always lead to some form of change. Adapting to change and making the most of new possibilities, means taking stock of one’s situation and imagining new strategies and ways of doing things. All of this is quintessential long-range and even long-term leadership. However, crises will also exacerbate the need for short-range leadership. This is because crises always give rise to unexpected events and more personal conflicts are people suffer under the heat. Yet, focusing only on short-range leadership in a time of crisis is the equivalent of fighting a fire but not rebuilding afterwards.
All in all, as I’ve said before, leadership is often hard and a huge balancing act between competing priorities.