The secret of leadership success?

Posted 04 October 2012 by
Conductor leader

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.

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.

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