The secret of leadership success?
Leaders today are facing a demanding and fast-paced environment in which they must quickly demonstrate high performance and produce results. In this results-driven culture, leadership development often revolves around outcomes, competencies and skills. At face value this appears to make business sense; but in their chase for success, do leaders receive the continuous feedback and support they need to meet these high demands? In a highly task-focused environment where belts are being tightened and the unflinching demands of the balance sheet loom large, self-reflection and personal development are seldom treated as priorities. However, faced with a potential personal development chasm, discrepancies can start to rear their heads between how well a leader believes they are performing, and the cold reality of what others think: earlier this year the CIPD published a report highlighting this very gap. For leaders without the chance to reflect on their performance objectively, it may therefore be difficult to see when and how they started to become ineffective.
So what do we mean by “great leadership” anyway – and how can L&D professionals play a role in achieving it?
Research by Zeus & Skiffington has highlighted common indicators of leadership ineffectiveness as problems with interpersonal relationships; failure to meet business objectives; failure to build and lead a high-performing team; and inability to change or adapt to change during a transition. More often than not, however, the reasons will be much more complex – and what defines a great leader cannot be identical for each individual. Leaders’ personal experiences, underlying issues and obstacles may interfere with their ability to perform effectively or reach their potential.
Personalised coaching by a skilled practitioner can be the starting point for many leaders in recognising where they are not as perfect as they may have thought – and an experienced coach can help leaders benchmark their performance against 360-degree feedback from their peers and their organisation’s competency framework or key objectives, as well as draw up a focused development plan.
For coaches and L&D professionals, there are some key areas of consideration, around which ideas and inspiration for leadership development can be structured. Importantly, these are not specific skills, qualities or attributes that have a simple cause-and-effect relationship with an abstract notion of ‘great leadership’. They are themes that provide the context for understanding what great leadership means for each organisation, team or individual – and getting to grips with this context sets you on the path to performance improvements that get noticed.
- What and who is around the leader?
Information about the market, the industry, or the political environment and culture in which the leader is working provides insights into the pressures they are experiencing. These factors impact the leader's behaviours and experience of their work and their relationships with their colleagues, and so are important in understanding the situation and identifying ways forward. As the environment is difficult to change, however, it is crucial to work with and help the leader to adapt, adjust and change.
- Who does the leader think they are?
Leaders may be ineffective partly due to a lack of understanding of their own motivations and behaviours, or acknowledgement of their weaknesses. Self-awareness is about knowing yourself and what you are personally experiencing. It is also about recognising what you enjoy doing and being aware of what impact you may have on others. Self-awareness means having the ability to recognise your skills and strengths as well as your development needs. Psychometric tools can act as a ‘stop and think’ sign, which contributes to the self-understanding necessary to become effective.
- Does the leader have mobility?
A leader must have the motivation and desire to change. To gain this they must be clear about their goals and where they are going, and understand why the identified goals are required. A skilled coach helps leaders understand their behaviours and underlying motivations by means of good questioning techniques and sophisticated analyses, and helps them to reach ‘mobility’ – ie the moment when the leader makes their own choices and recognises that they are in charge of their own actions, values, thinking and goals. This enables them to build trust in their own inner resources, which is vital to moving forward.
- Can the leader keep it up?
It is important that coaching is seen as a sustainable, ongoing process, not a one-off. During the coaching process, motivations and behaviours are discussed, goals are refined, and action plans agreed. The leader is equipped with changed or new behaviours to try out in the workplace and can then reflect and follow-up with the coach to continue learning and to sustain the support received from them. The leader also needs to have support from trusted peers – and from the top of the organisation – if the behaviours are to be successfully implemented and sustained. An environment should be provided that is safe and that encourages openness, learning and development.
So, what is the ‘secret’ to effective leadership? In a way, the secret is that there is no secret: at the core of an effective leader is the concept of authenticity – leading to a multiplicity of ways to succeed. Leaders can be guided to become aware of and to develop their own unique, individual and genuine leadership potential – rather than subscribing to a fixed or pre-defined set of characteristics that purport to work for everyone. Being an authentic leader is about being true to yourself and your values, rather than presenting a façade that you believe is required or accepted.
Academic research has found that leaders who exemplify authentic leadership produce outstanding business results and high morale in the organisations they lead, and in OPP’s own research we have found that employees rated trustworthiness as the most important attribute of a leader. The self-awareness and openness that follows authenticity will build trust and commitment in the leader.
The concern for business leaders trying to increase their effectiveness is how the organisation’s competencies and emphasis on productivity fit into leadership development. Where possible, goals identified with a coach can refer to a competency profile, or requirements (key skills, knowledge, behaviours) recognised as important for the role and the organisation. Furthermore, the ethos and values of the organisation can be built into the coaching dialogue, to ensure that the leader’s development is aligned with where the organisation is going.
However, we believe that the secret to leadership success really rests with development that is guided by what is important for the individual in question, enabling recognition of their own resourcefulness and ways to build on this for future success.