It’s not every government department that has a deputy minister who makes a point of having coffee with staff in the morning. But then, not every deputy minister is John Knapp.
Knapp retired from Alberta Agriculture in 2013, but he’s still active in the leadership field. He wrote a book, titled The Leader’s Practice Guide, which was published the year after he retired. These days he coaches executives and speaks about leadership as a consultant with Tantus Solutions Group, which is headquartered in Edmonton.
He had taken the wheel at Alberta Agriculture in 2008, and he knew he needed to be available to staff, on their terms, so they could talk to him about whatever was on their minds.
Readers should know that I got a first-hand look at Knapp’s leadership style when I worked in various roles including as a web editor for the ministry. It seemed to me at the time that I was also getting a first-hand understanding of what it means to have an employer who thinks seriously about what it means to be a leader, which may colour what I write below. But my primary links are to farming, and I do find his leadership strategy spurs a lot of thinking, not just in me.
Knapp himself began his 36-year career in public service as a district agriculturalist. “As a D.A., you basically were there to serve everyone who came in. And the three areas you worked on most were crops, livestock, and farm management,” he recalls now.
I first met Knapp when I was hired to process grasshopper control and drought applications with Alberta Agriculture in 2003. BSE had just slammed the beef industry, and Knapp was director of the rural development division, which handled the drought and BSE programs. I was still finishing university, and Alberta Agriculture had given me my first professional job. Even then Knapp made an impression on me with his practice of meeting and talking to us informally.
The message for farmers is that availability fosters trust, and trust is a cornerstone in the foundation of good leadership, in Knapp’s opinion.
“It’s almost impossible to lead well without trust,” says Knapp. “If people don’t trust you, they will begin to sign off. They’ll begin to work to rule. They won’t be as creative as they might otherwise be.”
Knapp tells me that part of a leader’s job is to think carefully about the environment they’re working in and try to think about ways to make themselves available. “There are different ways to be available, and they need to suit the context,” he says.
Coffee first thing in the morning suited the building we worked in because the atrium was a central place, adjacent to the cafeteria on the main floor. Many people had to pass by or through it to get to their offices.
In a field setting, being available might be showing up in the pickup with coffee and having a chat with people, Knapp says. It can also mean occasionally taking a break and doing informal stuff with the team, but it must work for the employees, instead of being solely on the leader’s own terms.
Leaders who make themselves available take calls as often as possible and return calls quickly, Knapp says. What might not seem important to the leader could be urgent to the employee, he adds. “In fact, without some kind of go-forward from you, their work may come to a standstill. So it’s very frustrating for them.”
That concern for others struck Knapp early in his career when he noticed how profoundly leadership qualities — good or bad — affected him and his colleagues.
Knapp thinks he started to subconsciously relate to good leaders right back in his 20s. He noticed the leaders who seemed to care about people and were focused on the well-being of the team.
Their actions were intended to support the team and to help team members grow. These people understood the concept of being a servant leader, he says, which means they acknowledged a duty of care to the people they led.
Conversely, he also saw a few poor leaders. He noted which behaviours demoralized and demotivated people, as well as actions that created angst, stress, and suffering. “Those were signals of how not to behave,” says Knapp.
Leadership that doesn’t rely on the leader having all the answers
A big part of a leader’s job is to listen carefully, Knapp says. Even employees in entry-level positions will know more than you in some areas. A leader needs to integrate information from those people, and turn it into a decision that “walks forward.”
“The worst thing you can do is procrastinate forever and try and do an opinion poll on every single issue in front of you,” he says.
But, he cautions, your team will only react well to assertive leadership if it’s paired with an effort to listen, think, and balance different points of view, Knapp says.
Balancing thoughtfulness with action can be tricky. Knapp suggests thinking through the potential pros and cons of different directions early on. Doing this allows a leader to enter discussions with a piece of their own analysis, he explains. “And then the input of others tends to influence that analysis to a degree. But you don’t arrive at the table with a blank sheet of paper, having no idea where this might head.”
Leaders also need to sense what would be acceptable to others, since trying to force an utterly unacceptable decision on others won’t wash.
“People just won’t do it,” says Knapp, before he adds a warning: “If they don’t like what you decide, they can simply walk away.”
Also be aware that employees don’t always voice their dissent. They may not be inclined to speak out, especially if they’re unsure how their leader would react. That means leaders must be sensitive to the body language, facial expressions, and tone of others in the discussion.
If the leader isn’t watching how others are reacting, they could be blind to the fact that people are verbally agreeing with a decision while their body language says the opposite.
If that happens, Knapp says the leader might want to acknowledge that the proposed direction isn’t going over very well. The leader could then suggest a five-minute break before the group gets back into it and tries to get on the same page.
A big decision shouldn’t feel like a fatal march over a cliff, says Knapp. It’s better to stop at the cliff’s edge and take a look before marching onwards.
Humility, brevity, directness
How does a person pull off this type of leadership, which requires admitting they don’t have all the answers? Knapp says attitude is the key.
If a leader believes they have a duty of care to others, they will approach leadership with a degree of humility, Knapp explains. “Not humility which means you’re subservient. Not humility which means you can’t make a decision. But humility that appreciates that you’re only one part of the process.”
Some of the biggest leadership failings Knapp has seen were due to the leaders’ lack of humility, which made people unable to relate to them.
But he’s also seen leaders with plenty of humility, who were focused on the issues and the people behind those issues. They try to move forward in a way that works for everyone involved, he says. And Knapp thinks that attitude might provide the base-level confidence to go forward in an atmosphere of uncertainty.
It’s different on the farm
While core leadership principles apply across industries, there are aspects unique to, or emphasized more, in agriculture. Humility is one of them, Knapp says.
“It’s part of what I call rural egalitarianism — this idea that we all work hard and we support each other. We work together and we’re equals,” Knapp says, and he goes to expand the idea, saying the concept of people taking turns to lead is stronger in agriculture than society in general.
Given the reduced farm population and number of ag service boards, commodity groups, breed associations, and other ag organizations, “the odds are very high that you’ll serve once, or many times, as a leader in your community or your organization,” says Knapp. “So almost everyone who wants a turn gets a turn to be a leader.”
That reality underscores the need for people to carry humility with them when they become leaders. People will respect their leadership because they retain humility, and they’re less likely to damage relationships.
Humility isn’t the only leadership trait emphasized in farming culture. Long-winded leaders are frowned upon in agriculture, perhaps more than other sectors. “I think there’s a notion in agriculture that brevity is elegance,” says Knapp.
We’ve all watched leaders talk around an issue or be oblique about their intents, Knapp says, which leaves everyone guessing what they really meant. “That doesn’t wash in any setting, but it especially does not wash within the culture of agriculture, where people are looking for directness.”
Beyond that, Knapp says it’s also important to be calm. People relate better to someone “who seems to wear the mantle of leadership easily,” he says.
“You can add energy to a situation. You can drain energy from a situation. And those who display these highly emotional, frenetic, driven behaviours, they tend to drain energy from others around them,” says Knapp.
On the other hand, leaders who are calm and purposeful tend to give energy to people, and also help people find the best in themselves, Knapp says. They project a “we can do it” vibe, even when everyone’s in for a long haul.
Upping your leadership game
Want to grow your leadership skills? John Knapp suggests you start by watching the leaders you know who are effective, and those who aren’t so effective as well.
Taking courses and reading about leadership are both useful, Knapp says, but getting into the habit of observing leaders in action is worth cultivating.
Also learn to pay attention to your instincts instead of your fears. Knapp urges people to trust themselves when it comes to leadership behaviour. “You’re probably right if your instincts are telling you to listen more than you talk, to be humble, to try and weigh everyone’s input before you come to a decision, and to explain the rationale for why you made your decision.”
Fear leads to secrecy, but your instincts will lead you to communicate to steer a course that will generate respect, Knapp says
With those two assets in hand —
i.e. your observations of good leaders, and a trust in your own instincts — it can then be time to study the details of good organizational leadership.
Learn how organizations work. Read widely, and take leadership courses. Good leaders with good intentions can fail if they don’t know and follow good governance principles, Knapp says. “If you’re going to be a leader, that’s a core understanding you need to have.”