HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR LEADERSHIP ABILITY Jeremy Raymond August 2008 Leadership has risen up the agenda for most organisations and also ambitious people. Management is not quite dead of course, but is in danger of being relegated to large scale bureaucratic organisations, and nobody wants to admit to being part of one of those, or do they? Leadership is equally in danger of becoming a panacea for every problem in the book; lack of strategy, lack of employee engagement in the purpose of the organisation, increasing complexity from geographic spread and more varied forms of competition, too little trust in senior management and so on So everybody wants to know how to be a better leader and the market is full of solutions. This article tries to cut through the hype associated with leadership development and suggest a few practical things that managers can do if they find that they are being expected to lead more than manage This research for this piece of work has not been systematic .It is based on observational data collected on 4 years tutoring on a range of Business School leadership programmes with different companies, and coaching senior managers for nearly twice that. My conclusions are entirely personal, but the model of leadership development that I have derived seems to make sense to senior managers. Jeremy Raymond What’s driving the need for more leadership and less management? Organisations pay a lot of money for leadership development programmes, because in todays fragmented, globalising world being a good manager is just not enough. With apologies to Warren Bennis, who was one of the early thinkers on this theme here are some the basic differences; • • • • • Managing is mainly about delivering the task. Leading is mainly about influencing and inspiring people Managing seeks to reduce risks to delivery today. Leadership works with strategic risk as an inevitable part of any future, and not wholly predictable scenario Managing is about telling people what to do. Leading is about showing them what to do Managing is about working with complexity. Leading is about applying judgement to simplify complexity Managing is about working through people, running the team. Leading is about setting an example of professionalism, as part of the delivery team As the working environment changes leadership matters more. • The task of businesses is becoming more complex, channels to market and proliferating and competition is more intense. But competitors collaborate too, so the old certainties about what business we are in, who are competitors are and so on are getting blurry • Working groups tend to be more ad hoc, separated by geography and time zone. Membership is becoming more “voluntary” as people increasingly have to make their own priorities about which meetings to attend. Groups also co-opt members for specific tasks. One day you are the boss, the next you are the expert; sometimes you are just a team member. Authority has to be continuously earned • People in organisations are becoming more self determining, less open to “being managed” and more diverse in terms of cultural mix. The more talented can pick and choose, and the younger ones are increasingly exhibiting “Generation Y “ characteristics The challenges for senior management and organisational leaders are increasingly to • • • • Make sense of the complexity for people (Prioritising is key) Establish trust between people in groups who do not know each other well Create a sense of common identity both inside and outside the company Inspire different stakeholders to want to be part of this great adventure Corporations have historically been good at getting compliance; their size and solidity attracts those who want to belong and maybe like to keep their heads down. This switch from biddable team manager to innovating, self starting leader can be tough. The risks increase (you still get hammered for getting it wrong) and suddenly the sort of exposure to which only Board members were subjected is everywhere. Making the right judgements – commercially, politically and interpersonally – gets more critical in a riskier world with few clear boundaries. To perform well, everybody needs to lead sometimes. It is no longer a hierarchical concept How this all looks to managers Managers sent on a business school course to “learn leadership” might expect that • Either it will be a bit like learning finance or marketing • Or that they are on a fools errand as they already know they are not Ghandi, Mandela or Churchill Of course, if they have been listening, the rumour mill will have told them that it is all about feedback, awareness and subjects like emotional intelligence, because most leadership programmes start with the notion that the foundations of better leadership are knowledge not of concepts, but of self. For some this is rather scary, because large organisations are full of judgements of other people. Indeed these judgements are used to control people and, in the short term, to try and motivate better performance and more effort. Performance appraisals, Salesperson of the year, Employee of the month … so it goes on. Many managers have internalised this and are already extremely self critical. The thought that further data about their leadership ability will be leaked from the programme is, with justification, a source of anxiety Of course not everybody feels like this. As Leadership programmes tend to be associated with elites, talent pools and the like, many people sent on such events see this as an accolade, or maybe a vindication of their dedication to the company. They are confident that although there is much to learn, they are already seen as high performers and probably as high potential too, with “tomorrow’s leaders” on their card. They may be sceptical of what academics or coaches (who surely know little of their world) can offer Between these two positions – the fearful and the fearless – lie any number of variations. Overburdened managers who see the programme as the organisation’s way of adding to their enormous “to do” list, people near to retirement who wonder why they have been included with the “young turks”, people who see this as a reward for their devotion. And of course Executive education does reflect this mix of the lash and the lollipop. In fact leadership development programmes have evolved in different ways within different organisations, everything from meditating on a flame to abseiling down mountains What leadership education provides Most courses that I have worked on, or know about, share some common features although not all programmes will include all of these • Increased awareness of the individuals “profile” as a leader. This is often done with a mix of 360 performance feedback and psychometrics or other more specialised instruments to assess individuals and compare them to others. On a practical level behavioural feedback from tutors and fellow participants is also common • Development of a group within which to discuss performance issues and behaviour The long history of the “group-as-laboratory” for exploring behaviour works well for leadership as much as other sorts of behaviour, Some programmes nominate individuals as the group leaders for specified tasks, others explore who emerges as the leader, others simply use the group to share experiences of leadership in the workplace. Since leadership is about leading others into new experiences, many programmes are based around the idea of taking the group into unfamiliar or physically challenging territory • Input from role models There’s an industry of experts who come and talk about their own experiences as leaders – often in the sporting or commercial arenas. Many have well-turned acts which provide some relief from the rather intense introspection of some of the other development • Case study work to debate the principles of leadership. Professors are comfortable with the fairly well-trodden paths associated with case study review work, although some go further and invite participants to develop their own case studies based on real life experience. Case studies work well to highlight the dilemmas and principles of leadership. They may offer some consolation as well. • Practical work to test out new ways of leading and being Some programmes include simulations and skill development sessions to challenge the participant to develop their skills. Many of the activities are observed and the feedback helps the participant to improve. Key skill areas are usually in formal and informal communications, where the person as well as the messages will be judged. Many programmes also have a project component to test the participant’s ability to lead back at the workplace. This may be supported by coaching or action learning sets • Development plans. Since leadership is a task that is never complete, neither is the process of learning how to do it. Most programmes identify individual aspects of leadership to improve. This plan may be supported by coaching. What affects your ability to develop your leadership repertoire? You may well be wondering “But does any of this work?” and like all learning processes the answer must be qualified. If you compare leadership skill improvement to almost any other sort of learning agenda, the will element in leadership is far more important than the skill. You have to be motivated to lead in order to really improve, rather like an athlete has to be motivated to win in order to tolerate the hours of punishing training. More importantly you have to want to lead in order to be a leader. Leadership is this odd mix of doing and being. It can be lonely, depressing and hard on your family even as it can be invigorating, exciting and a huge source of pride. Courses which are paid for by organisations cannot afford to omit the motivational element –what I think of as the “noble calling” component of the pitch. If all the participants return saying “It was great, - really interesting, excellently organised, most thought provoking…. but I don’t think I want to / am cut out for being a leader” then the company will want their money back What drives this “requirement to be the leader” is actually quite complex because the enablers of leadership development can also be its inhibitors. This framework identifies 4 factors in how rapidly you will learn leadership ENVIRONMENT PERSONALITY VALUES SKILLS Much leadership research has focused on the role of personality and which attributes help or hinder your ability to lead better. The same is true for your propensity to learn how to lead. For example, if you are naturally extrovert you may have some advantages in challenging leadership simulations as you will be more comfortable if some high energy communication is required. But there seems to be no evidence that you will be any less good as a leader if you are introverted – you will just need to make more effort under those circumstances. If you are very determined as a personality, you may well overcome any disadvantages. This is the part of the leadership equation which we cannot change; we can only work with it. The interplay between skills and personality are important here; deciding when not to behave in your normal way may enhance your ability to lead by surprising people – and the opposition Values influence what you are prepared to get emotional about and what stirs you to want to lead. Often people only realise their leadership potential when they find their values attacked or insulted. Defending something close to your hearts may be the motivation for even a person with no experience to engage with the problem and find themselves in a leadership role. They may also be able to lead better when their work is closely aligned with personal values – and may feel low energy when the task offends their cherished beliefs or sense of morality. Again values are only really changed by major life events, so for most this is a fixed component in the mix. The interplay between the environment and values is particularly important in creating motivation to lead Since so much of the leader’s challenge is better served by good skills, particularly in the area of communication, those who are better at telling stories, making the logical case for action, inspiring others and so on have a natural advantage. Extending skills is one way to increase ones potential as a leader, although may not ultimately ensure that the leadership performance changes. (In general, the broader the individual’s repertoire of skills, the greater their potential to cope with and capitalise on situations). Skills must not be seen as a cosmetic overlay, as people who act in a way that seems to contradict their values are inherently suspect Surrounding all three of these sits the environment for leadership. The extent of an individual’s opportunity to lead varies, although most people would recognise that the leader does not wait for the stars to become aligned, they try to get them into the right position. None the less, history is full of examples of leaders “whose time had come” and also those whose time had gone. External challenge is one of the strongest motivators for extending the repertoire; confronting change is therefore often linked to notions of improving leadership. Despite the rhetoric, job design that allows for leadership is rare; managers who want to lead may first have to renegotiate their terms of reference. The point of intersection of all four of these defines the size of the leadership performance space and/or the limits on the leader’s behavioural repertoire. Although it is the mix that counts, it is easy to think about what sort of mix is most likely to produce an effective as a leader over time. Under most circumstances you ideally need • • • • An environment that demands you lead, rather than manage ( or hide in the store cupboard) A personality that is optimistic, forward looking , open to learning, determined to succeed, comfortable with ambiguity, matched with high levels of self awareness so you know when to rein in some less useful attribute A set of values that you recognise and which provide you with the conviction and motivation to take the inevitable risks of being the leader The skills to deliver the leadership performance effectively So the implication of this for most people attending leadership programmes is actually one of courage Am I prepared to submit myself to an environment which will be uncomfortable and where I will be seriously challenged (and may fail)? Can I sustain this attitude of positivity when I may be feeling the opposite? C.S Lewis described courage as not being a separate virtue, but as being “any virtue at the point of extreme”. Am I prepared to acknowledge publicly what I stand for? Am I prepared to put in the time it takes to practice and get better at developing my communication and relationship skills? So how should the wannabe leader proceed? To develop yourself as a leader you may have to use the same levers • You will have to construct – or put yourself into - an environment where management will not be enough to see you through This means that you must accept a certain degree of discomfort with that environment. Yours will not be a quiet life, some days will be a real struggle • You will need to use insights into your personality to realise how best to lead and maybe find others that complement you who you can include in your team Accepting your personality as the instrument on which you must play is the start. This includes what you are less good at – indeed what you may never be any good at – and making the best of this raw material. If the environment really requires somebody with attributes that are not your forte you may need a partner who complements your preferences and comfort zone • You will need to know what you stand for and how far you can and cannot compromise It’s one of the great truisms of leadership that you don’t start to lead until you realise what is “yours to do”. That connection between circumstance and motivation is often about values. Most people do not know what they are put on the planet for because they are not really in touch with what they are committed to. It is tempting to say that when you make this connection the main barrier to leadership development is overcome, but in reality some very principled people do not learn to become good leaders because they are confused about means ( “must be true to my values” ) and ends (a vision of my values realised in some way). However if you are not aware of your values it is unlikely you will ever realise your potential as a leader • You will need to practice using new skills to improve your effectiveness. Patience is critical as many people have to master skills which do not fit easily with their personality. Problems with doing things as a leader often link to problems being that sort of a leader – in other words there is some dissonance between the action needed and either values or personality or both. Ideally all four of these factor and insights will be in play at the same time, but this is not often the case and your chance of developing as a leader decreases. Not all of if is chance of course; a good coach can help with all four if you know what you lack. The role of the leadership programme is to kick start each by providing insight and ideas; but the real work of development can only happen back on the job. Do organisations really want these free spirits being set loose in their midst? If the course is any good – and most of them are - participants leave leadership programmes with great ideas of inspiring or listening and asserting themselves. Follow up coaching reveals one further inhibitor / enabler to their success. Whilst the organisation recognises it needs people who will lead, taking charge and letting go (and making the correct judgement about when to do each), organisations are essentially conformist. Like any other group, they operate to a set of norms. Leaders often need to challenge something about the status quo. Although organisations may understand the value of this intellectually, in practice they also collude with keeping things as they were – that is on an even keel. The reasons are easy to see; too many chiefs and not enough braves is a recipe for conflict, and organisations tend to abhor conflict much as nature was said to abhor a vacuum. So having got people ready for the struggle of leadership the organisation probably poses the biggest hurdle to their success. Some organisations are as aware as their aspirant leaders. They recognise their collusion with mediocrity, the past and habitual ways of seeing and doing. They genuinely welcome a degree of maverick leadership, particularly if they are in “renewal mode” themselves. There are some interesting differences between the styles of leadership that are appreciated at different stages in an organisations development, as the chart below indicates Engaging Commercial Judgement Inspiring VISIONARY ENTREPRENEURS START-UP Directing Enforcing Standards Goal-setting Strategising Coaching Motivating recognising COURAGEOUS STABILISERS SUPPORTIVE CENTRALISERS CONSOLIDATING REVITALISING Empowering Challenging Innovating LIBERATING DESTABILISERS GROWING / EXPANDING Which is why great leaders have to be pragmatic. The serenity prayer of Reinhold Niehbuhr – adopted by AA and printed on thousands of little cards - perhaps reminds us of the one aspect of leadership which Business Schools tend not to cover; the spiritual. Yet its message about accepting the things you cannot change, courageously tackling those you can (and wisely recognising the difference) may resonate with you if you are considering where best to develop your leadership abilities.
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