What kind of leadership are we developing?
The resources available to educate, support, challenge and inform current and aspiring leaders to develop their leadership are enormous.
Few of them recommend directive or autocratic leadership except in cases of emergency, life or death situations, or situations where absolute obedience (such as in the armed forces) is essential.
Many of them extol the value of leadership which enables, facilitates and releases individuals’ capabilities. And yet a conception of leadership which is about telling people what to do, micromanaging them to do it, and demanding compliance is disturbingly common.
Leadership I don’t recommend!
My coaching clients span a wide range of sectors. Across all the sectors I work in I’m struck by how many CEOs and their senior teams slavishly follow a model of leadership which represents how they believe they and others ‘ought’ to be, which stifles challenge and innovation through the illusion that doing things the way they’ve always been done is the route to greater success, and which does nothing to explore and release their people’s true potential.
At its worst, such leadership instils a fear of making mistakes, admitting a weakness or even being open about stress.
Leadership is the key to outcomes
Organisations invest in leadership development programmes because they may recognise that leadership – more than anything – is the key to greater effectiveness – much more so than the spreadsheets, the public pronouncements or the mission statements, which actually depend on leadership for their successful enactment.
Leadership development means embracing the challenges and being courageous enough to be open to learning, whether that learning is unpalatable or affirming. It means being curious, vulnerable and invested in understanding the systemic factors that shape beliefs, behaviours and relationships. It means learning that can’t simply be taken from a textbook. It means the leader raising their self-awareness to gain insight into their drivers, strengths, and purpose – and into what inhibits them from achieving the outcomes they really want.
Six mental stances for top quality leadership
In my view, six mental stances characterise top leaders: those who create and sustain high-performing organisations, and who perpetually raise the quality of their own and other people’s work:
1) being people-centred and demonstrating humanity: understanding what motivates human beings and knowing how to connect with them and release the best in them (both self and others). Dr Lesley Bromley, who I had the privilege of working with when she was Director of Postgraduate Medical Education at University College London Hospitals, understood deeply how to connect with doctors’ development by acknowledging that each person’s leadership capabilities, drivers, passions, ambitions and inhibitors were individual to them.
2) having integrity: subscribing to ethical values, and delivering on those values consistently whether anyone’s looking or not. Sadly, I’ve had the experience of coaching senior people whose CEOs subscribed to one set of values and commitments at a given moment but shifted those values and commitments when pressures intervened. The effect on trust, engagement, motivation and retention – and hence productivity – of such behaviour were corrosive.
3) being authentic: not only knowing oneself but being comfortable to bring that self to the task of leadership. In my experience the leader who learns how to be authentic, having faced both their angels and their demons, and who has learnt how to manage the tensions between individual and organisational values and imperatives, is compelling and inspiring to follow. They have gravitas and courage, and they inspire others. Think Anita Roddick, Founder of the Body Shop.
4) being open to learning: tough learning through listening to others’ views and feedback can be especially valuable. Some of the most impactful learning I’ve witnessed in clients has been when an individual has sought honest feedback, some of which has been difficult to accept and process. And in accepting and processing it, and doing things differently as a consequence, rich learning has occurred which has been transformational for both the individual and their teams.
5) being courageous: frequently coming from a strong sense of purpose, a preparedness to stretch beyond what feels comfortable, and to inspire with an ambitious vision and obvious belief in people’s capacity. I recall a UNICEF leader I coached who was (like many UNICEF leaders) totally passionate about her role and her contribution. Operating in war zones and terrorist zones that posed risks to her life and the lives of her team members, she unified her teams and equipped them to achieve what had seemed impossible to them.
6) understanding the system – the relationships, the culture and the nature of the power that shows up in an organisation. It’s only by the leader’s exploring, acknowledging and understanding the influences, the unconscious loyalties and the relationships that impact on them, their teams and the outcomes they achieve that they can gain clarity on what is really happening and what the opportunities for change and development are.
One last word on authenticity: role models are often recommended for those who wish to develop their leadership. In my view, aspiring to a role model can only have limited value because each individual can only ever be their best by being who they are. Learn about features of positive behaviour, yes – but only ever aim to develop your own leadership in your own style.