Let's talk leadership: A journey that doesn't have a final destination

The past few years has thrown some real challenges at leaders and now is the time, more than ever, for leaders to step up to the plate and shine.

Time to read: 5 mins

People need leadership. I’m not talking about top-down control. I’m talking about the kind of leadership that brings out the best in teams, espouses high performance, is visionary, motivating, inspiring and empowering. These are great adjectives, yet most leaders are not delivering on them. 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 Center for Creative Leadership. And yet we are surprised when a leader starts to flail in their role.

So what defines a good leader?

A good leader is defined by the ability to build a high-performing team. Leadership should therefore 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 relationships.

The most common and ongoing 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 skills/traits that have worked for them to date and helped them succeed in their career, are unlikely to be the skills/traits that carry forward. In fact, in many cases, they could be the very traits that get in the way of leading effectively.

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 we can 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 our team experience us. Diagnostic tools can progress an insight process, be it through profiling or a 360 Feedback Survey that references specific leadership competencies. These can be confronting but they provide valuable insight into one’s leadership developmental needs.

The nature-nurture debate is relevant. Some personality traits point to a natural predisposition towards leadership. However, any individual can still learn and apply good leadership skills. Think like an athlete – top athletes know what skills they need and are meticulous in reviewing their performance and practicing what is required. It is an intentional approach to:

  • Learn the skills
  • Develop the qualities
  • Practice the actions

Leading the team

Many leaders focus on leading strategy and leading culture as two very different things. The two are inextricably linked and getting alignment between them will revolutionise a business leader’s approach. Leadership coach Gordon J Curphy’s Rocket Model framework and tools for building high performing teams is a useful starting point. In the first instance, it requires an understanding of the context you are operating in – looking at who are key stakeholders, the stage of the team (e.g. new and forming, broken, combining, virtual etc), the political and economic realities etc. From there, a leader can develop a map for determining mission/vision, a talent plan, operating rhythms, motivation and resourcing through to results.

It is useful to clarify the difference between leading from the front versus leading from behind and knowing how these differ. Understanding that and getting the balance right is important, from painting the vision and setting expectations, through to seeking input, asking questions, listening and having team members take the lead. Using the combination is useful in any leadership scenario, from annual planning and meetings through to day-to-day conversations.

Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, identified leadership as a critical success factor. He found leaders in high-performing organisations had two things in common – humility and persistent drive. These two traits are a nice definition for leading from behind and leading from the front.

Curphy also refers to a third – being comfortable in the sheriff role – being ultimately responsible for holding team members accountable. And yes, this includes managing under-performers and being comfortable with (and skilled in) healthy conflict. It is a move away from leadership being about ourselves, and instead about the team.

“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

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.

AI, while a great tool, is not the solution to developing leaders’ “soft” skills, for want of a better word. Nor will a one-off training day turn anyone’s leadership on its head. Development of leadership skills is a journey. It takes time, practice, commitment and building of trust. It takes putting yourself out there (author and professor Brene Brown uses the term "vulnerability"). It also takes practice – and you are never really there. My challenge to leaders for the year – be intentional. May this be your year.

DISCLAIMER No liability is assumed by Baker Tilly Staples Rodway for any losses suffered by any person relying directly or indirectly upon any article within this website. It is recommended that you consult your advisor before acting on this information.

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