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Let’s talk leadership – a journey that doesn’t have a final destination

Author: Andrea Stevenson

The working environment has become ever more complex in recent years and now, more than ever, leaders in organisations need to be stepping up to the plate. In a world that has thrown a lot at us over the last few years, now is the time, more than ever, for leaders to step up to the plate and shine.

People are needing leadership. I’m not talking about top-down control. I’m talking about the kind of leadership that brings out the best in the team, espouses high performance, is visionary, motivating, inspiring and empowering. Yes most leaders are not delivering on these aspects of leaders. Even more concerning is that a reported 60%* of all first-time managers do not receive any sort of leadership development training, according to the Centre for Creative Leadership.

It’s no wonder many leaders are flailing.

So what defines a good leader?

A good leader is defined by the ability to build a high-performing team. Leadership should be evaluated by the team’s performance. A good leader plays the critical role of influencing the team and their actions towards a common goal. Leadership is visionary, but it is also relationship-driven – a balance of establishing direction and vision with investing in the formation and building up of those relationships.

A common error is the assumption that because someone is technically good in their role, they’ll make a good leader. Leaders need to recognise that what got them ‘here’, won’t get them ‘there’. The traits that have worked for them to date and helped them succeed can, in many cases, be the very traits that get in the way of leading effectively (e.g. being detail attentive is now micromanaging).

The first step Leadership is a journey. We are never there (if you think you are, then you are most definitely not). There is always something to learn and improve on. The foundation of good leadership is self-awareness. This requires leaders to be acutely aware of their strengths and their flip side (and every strength has a flip side), of their motivations, values, blind spots, unconscious biases and behaviours under pressure.

When it comes to leadership, how we think we might be performing is somewhat irrelevant – what matters is how others experience us. Diagnostic tools can progress an insight process, be it through profiling or 360 Surveys that reference specific leadership competencies as can 1:1 coaching. These can be affronting but they provide valuable insight into one’s developmental needs. Without this awareness, any type of change behaviour will not be achieved. The nature-nurture debate is relevant to leadership. Some personality traits have a natural predisposition towards leadership, but it is also true that any good leader can learn and apply the skills. Think like an athlete – top athletes know what skills they need, are meticulous in reviewing their performance and they practice what is required. It is an intentional approach to:

1. Learn the skills

2. Develop the qualities

3. Practice the actions

Leading the team

Traditionally, leading strategy and leading culture have been seen as two different things. However, the two are inextricably linked and getting alignment is critical. Leadership coach Gordon J Curphy’s Rocket Model framework for building high performing teams is a useful starting point. Being in the Rocket requires an understanding of the context you are operating in first – considering key stakeholders, the stage of the team (e.g. new, broken, virtual etc.), and economic realities etc. From there, a leader can develop a map for determining mission/vision, talent, operating rhythms, motivation and resourcing through to results. At the core, trust is a primary factor. If this is not the foundation then high performance is unlikely to follow.

From there, clarify the difference between leading from the front versus leading from behind and know how these differ. Understanding that and getting the balance right is important, and not over-doing either.

It’s the balance of establishing vision and setting expectations, through to seeking input, asking questions, listening and having team members take the lead. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, identified leadership as a critical success factor. He found that leaders in high-performing organisations had two things in common – humility and persistent drive. These two traits are a nice descriptor of leading from the front and behind. Curphy also refers to a third factor – being comfortable in the sheriff role – being ultimately responsible for holding team members accountable. And yes, this includes managing under-performers and being skilled in healthy conflict.

Situational Leadership (see the work of Blanchard and Hersey) is about adapting your leadership style/response to each unique situation or task to meet the needs of the team or team members.

It requires leaders to change “hats” at times, shifting between being directional through to supporting, delegating and coaching. “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Jack Welch, Jack Welch Management Institute

AI, while a great tool, is not the solution to developing “soft skills” in leaders. Nor will a one-off training day turn one’s leadership on its head. Development of leadership skills is a journey. It takes time, practice and commitment. It takes building of trust. It takes putting yourself out there. It takes being intentional on everything. Above all it takes practice. And you are never really there. My challenge to leaders for the year – be intentional. May this be your year!

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