In my line of work, I come across a lot of leaders who are struggling with the challenges of guiding people and organisations.
It’s an interesting situation because in a way, the job of leading people hasn’t changed since the dawn of time. Leaders who command others’ respect and display the flexibility to use the right leadership style in the right situation are still the ones who motivate their people and consequently get the best performance.
So what has changed? In my opinion, it’s the context. I’ve worked with leaders in many countries and it’s clear that different cultures vary in their expectations of leaders, as do different sectors and organisations. Changes in the world of work create pressures for leaders to respond to. Hay Group’s research 'Leadership 2030: Building the new leader' highlights five ‘megatrends’ which have huge implications for the future of leadership, ranging from a new wave of globalisation to the rise of ‘digital natives’ in the workforce. But once again the successful leaders will be those with the flexibility of style and approach to adapt to these demands and personalise their approach to their people.
Leaders need to display skills and competencies built around four key areas:
- self-awareness and self-management (understanding how they come across to others and managing this appropriately to the situation)
- social awareness and relationship management
- understanding how others are feeling and responding appropriately to two points above
- a degree of self-confidence and resilience to be able to make and deal with the consequences of tough decisions.
Humanity in leadership
I consistently find the biggest pitfall for leaders is a lack of self-awareness or self-control. Many don’t have a clear picture of how they come across to others – leading to unintended consequences – or they have a tendency to ‘blow their top’ when the pressure is on. As Aristotle said: “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – this is not easy.”
Despite the fact that leadership is a constant in any human system, and the things that make people good at it don’t fundamentally change, it is something that surprisingly few people do well. I have worked with hundreds of CEOs and senior executives over the years and only a small fraction of these could really be described as good, rounded leaders. The patchy approach to developing leaders is, in my opinion, a major factor in this. Many organisations just let people in leadership roles ‘get on with it’ – as if they will get good at it by osmosis or (more worryingly) trial and error. Can you imagine us taking the same approach to, say, learning to drive?
The leadership development that does exist is a mixed bag, mainly because:
- Far too often it is driven by the latest fad rather than built on things that work, such as self-awareness and flexibility
- There is a demand for 'edutainment' – fun, fast-paced content that may or may not deliver any development benefit. People need to take the time and space to reflect on real feedback in order to build their own self-awareness
- Some organisations pursue advanced approaches to leadership when they’ve neglected the basics.
The key to great leadership
A few people are natural leaders who intuitively have the knack of engaging their people in any given situation. For the rest of us, getting good at leadership takes time and practice – and being a leader is not always comfortable. There are moments when you have to make tough decisions or put yourself in a difficult situation. Although there is no easy way to do this, getting honest feedback from your team can help considerably. I have worked with many leaders who have made significant discoveries this way. For example, they have found out that their people want them to be decisive, rather than discussing everything in meetings, and that a team member's lack of performance needs to be dealt with firmly and promptly before it ‘infects’ others.
Sometimes people ask me how they can be a good leader without being a self-serving egomaniac. Great leadership isn’t self-serving – it's quite the opposite. There might be times when the leader needs to take the stage, be brave and forthright, but there are others where humility and listening are the right approach. Sometimes leaders get ‘stuck’ in one mode or the other – often because of strong personal preferences or their own intrinsic motivation. Once again, self-awareness and flexibility are essential. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tse got it about right when he said this: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did it ourselves!’”
Top five tips for effective leadership:
- Right styles: Use a range of leadership styles for the right situation to get the best out of your own and your team’s performance
- Flexibility in approach: Flex your style and approach to future demands and personalise your approach to individual people
- The four Ss: Build self-awareness, social awareness, self-confidence and support of others through understanding
- Self-control: Practice this to avoid negatively impacting your team
- Practice makes perfect: Regularly use new leadership styles, approaches and behaviours and get feedback from your team about your performance.