Leadership And Self-Awareness

In common with most leadership coaches I’m often inundated with surveys along the lines of “which of these attributes do you consider to be most important in a leader” that then go on to list a series of skills all of which could be considered the most important in a given scenario but as a respondent you are allowed to choose only one. The other day a colleague of mine raised the latest survey request with me over coffee.

“So which one did you choose” he asked “I bet you went for communication”

“Well actually no I didn’t. In fact I never respond to those sorts of questionnaires. Sure, I suppose that they prompt debate which in itself is no bad thing but I’m not convinced that they take things forward very much.”

“Ok I take your point on the simplicity of this approach – so if I were to give you free rein what would you say?” he responded.

“That’s a pretty big question” I replied. “but I think I’d start by talking about self-awareness.”

“In my book anybody aspiring to a position of leadership must be acutely aware of who they are, what they stand for and how they impact on the people they interact with on a day to day basis. Good leaders are reflective by nature and their re-evaluation process is second nature to them.

In essence a good leader will have a deep rooted understanding of their core values, be emotionally aware, understand their motives and goals and will know and trust their feelings. I believe that self-awareness provides the anchor that enables a leader to make decisions and take action.” I concluded.

“So that’s your starting point – where next?” inquired my colleague.

“I think that’s the subject of next week’s coffee break…..”

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Do You Grow or Acquire Your Leaders?

Every now and then I receive an email that really makes me stop and think – today was one such occasion.

A little background…… last week I had the pleasure of talking to a group of undergraduates from my Business School as part of their Alumni week. My role was to share with them my career experiences along with what I hope they found were some interesting insights of how they might expect their careers to develop in the future.

It was a conversation that I’d had with numerous groups over the years but an element that was different in this case was the subsequent discussion about my role at the Business School as Chair of the Alumni Executive which in turn led on to the topic of my leadership blog. Over the subsequent days there was the normal flow of follow up emails requesting further information and requests for coaching but one had a different take that I would like to share with you.

In essence the young man in question had some difficulty reconciling the fact that I have spent the best part of forty years in one company (albeit a great one!) yet could write with such diversity and understanding on the subject of leadership that he felt was commensurate with somebody with  a much wider background.

To quote him “…. I had naiively assumed that the key to gaining exceptional business sense and developing good leadership skills was to work in a variety of different companies, sectors and cultures…”

Once I got past the “Why not” response that immediately triggered in my head I began to think about the essence of his assumption and how, in turn, organisations might address this issue when looking for their next generation of leaders – should they grow their leaders from within or should they acquire fresh blood from elsewhere as the opportunity arose. I also began to think about some of the companies that I’d worked with over the years and how they had approached the issue.

As I mulled these questions over in my mind it soon became evident to me that the strategies employed by a significant number of these companies could best be described as ad-hoc being more an expression of preference rather than the result of strategic intent. Of those that had considered the question at some length it did not appear to me that too much consideration had been given to the impact of their policy on the existing team – how would the acquisition of new talent from outside be viewed by the existing aspirational leaders within?

As I considered the consequences for these organisations of this apparent lack of policy in this vitally important area a thought struck me – one thing I do know is for certain is that I’m really looking forward to meeting that young man again next week….should be an interesting conversation for both of us.

Are Your Leaders Authentic?

The other evening I was discussing leadership with a group of students from my local Business School. One of the students voiced his opinion that the interaction between the leader and the group of followers was fundamental to the success of the undertaking.

“Sure the relationship is important,” responded one of the group. ”but it’s only one aspect of a complexity of issues which arise in any situation. I tend to think that the relationship is the result of other factors that give rise to a scenario in which the team can flourish.”

“Such as?” came the instantaneous response.

“Well there’s all sorts of factors which influence the relationship most of which I believe are associated with the leader. For instance, if the leader doesn’t have a good understanding of who he is and what he stands for the how can he operate with integrity? The team will see straight through him”

“That’s right,” added another from within the group. “I’ve worked in several teams where this was the case. The leaders lose all credibility with their teams because their actions are not based on their core values. There is no legitimacy in their leadership position and the team understandably do not follow because there’s no trust.”

The discussion continued in a similar vain for some time. The concept of value-based action attracted wide support from within the group. Similarly strong ethics and a supportive moral perspective also achieved wide recognition from within the group. The question of the degree to which a leader should adapt his message to accommodate the needs of the group was much more contentious.

“Surely if the leader does not adapt his message to match the beliefs and values of the team he will fail to get the buy-in he needs to see the change through” protested a younger member of the group.

“But if he does that won’t he compromise his own values? Surely it would be better if he had the courage of his convictions and did what he felt was right” responded another. “At least if he took this approach he would have integrity outside his team as well”

“Hmm, good point” replied the younger member.

“Well, what do you think? “ he asked turning to me.

“Like most of you I think that leaders who don’t understand their purpose are doomed to failure. I’m also passionate that leaders should always try to do what’s right; I know this can be difficult in an organisational context but in the long run I believe it to be the best strategy. In  my book trust is the cornerstone for building the relationship with the team but remember it has to be both ways – you in them and them in you and lastly if the leader is not passionate about what he is doing then it’s time for him to move on and make way for someone who is. That just about covers it…….”

Are Your Leaders Born or Made?

I would not like to estimate the number of times I have been asked my opinion on whether leadership can truly be developed in an individual or does leadership stem from a combination of personal characteristics and attributes that some of us are fortunate to be born with. One such occasion arose recently when I was talking to a group of students at my local university.

“Well, let’s take a look at the evidence or lack of it” I suggested.

“First of all there is no generally accepted definition of Leadership. Indeed the last time I looked there were in the region of two hundred alternatives available to choose from! So the reality is that all of us carry around in our heads our own definition drawn from a combination of our experiences of both leading and being led and probably some sort of vision of the leader that we aspire to be.”

“Just think about that for a moment. Let’s say I asked you all to write down on a piece of paper a definition of leadership and what constitutes a good leader in the context of your definition. The range of answers would exceed the number of people in the group because some of you wouldn’t be able to make up your mind and would qualify your responses”

“To some of you Leadership is an expression of activity – creating a vision, communicating and the like – to others leadership is behavioural; it’s about values and characteristics and to some of you it’s about performance – how well something is done. Also, any measures that you have will be, almost without exception subjective – your own opinion”

“Let’s take an example” I continued. “A common premise within academic literature and has general support amongst practitioners is that leaders should be ‘self-aware’. Interestingly I cannot find anywhere an example of a model of self-awareness let alone one that is generally accepted and supported by documented evidence of applicability. This is just one example but it is fairly typical of the whole range and depth of leadership theory and research.”

“So what is the implication of this for both us and our organisations?” asked an individual from within the group.

“Well, if we assume that the objective of your organisation is to enhance its performance across a broad church of stakeholders and concurrently develop it future leadership potential which seems a reasonable assertion – do you think it has sufficient knowledge or the necessary tools and techniques to deliver on that?”

“Hmm, probably not. I suppose that’s why we always tend to choose the same type of individual for our leadership development programmes. You know the keen ones who make it pretty clear that they want to be leaders. The trouble is that most of them are only in it for themselves not to develop the rest of the organisation” he responded.

“Well that’s as maybe but the fact of the matter is that over time some of them do develop into the leaders your organisations want. The really interesting thing would be to find out why……”

Leadership Coaching…….

Like many experienced leaders I spend a considerable amount of my time coaching teams and individuals in various aspects of either personal or organisational development. I consider myself extremely fortunate that over the years my career has enabled me to develop a broad network of business and institutional leaders spanning a wide range of industries and sectors along with numerous world class academics that enables me to bring a rich diversity to this particular aspect of my work.

One of the most popular personal development topics, especially amongst those in the early stages of their development, is that of career management. Recently, during one such session, a thought struck me as I was discussing an individual’s potential options….

“I’m looking to use my current and next role as stepping stones into a management position prior to achieving executive status in the next 5 to 7 years” my mentee explained. “I’m looking to complete my professional qualification over the next two years and follow this up with an MBA; I’d appreciate your advice on which Business School would be most appropriate.” He added.

There was no hiding the individual’s ambition and desire to reach the upper levels within the organisation. As our conversation developed over the next hour or so his focus remained on the development of his technical skills and how he would develop his profile within the organisation.

“I want to run bigger and bigger projects and have responsibility for managing a large number of people. I want what I do to be really visible to the seniors” he concluded.

“OK it’s pretty clear you have a handle on how you are going to develop technically” I commented.  “So tell me how do you intend to develop your leadership skills? If I were to ask you what you will be like in 7 years’ time what would you say? What will you bring to the organisation? What will be your defining qualities?”

It was clear from his reaction to this line of questioning that he had applied very little thinking to this particular aspect of his development. His responses quickly reverted to an expression of his technical skills and what he could do. I explained to him that whilst be able to deliver projects was a very important attribute his success and progression within the organisation would be heavily dependent on the development of his leadership capability and that he would need to devote as much energy if not more to this than to his technical skills.

The polarity of this conversation caused me to reflect back on similar discussions that I’d had with other early career high potential people in the past. Whilst there was no doubting that this was an extreme example of one of those conversations it was evident that the underlying bias was present in many of the other conversations.

So when did we learn to value ourselves, especially in the eyes of others, by what we do rather than who we are? Which of our other evaluation criteria are similarly flawed? How should our contribution be measured and rewarded that reflects our real contribution to the organisation through our interaction with those within it?

More worryingly when was the last time that any of us, irrespective of the stage of our career, sat down and evaluated whether our chosen path was truly reflective of our sense of purpose and meaning giving rise to fulfilment of our expression of achievement and well-being?

Hmmm… in my case it’s been quite some time…

Leadership Development…….

I recently received an email from a colleague who I had been working with for several weeks on a project with a small but highly influential organisation. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that his reason for contacting me was to share the news that he was considering leaving his current employer and to ask me if I would consider providing him with some coaching support.

Our subsequent conversation followed an all too familiar path.

“I’m pretty much like everybody else on our Leadership Development programme” he confided. “I was originally selected because I contributed more than the others. I stood out because I was more committed and was highly motivated. I got things done”

“That’s pretty normal in my experience” I responded. “A lot of organisations start their selection process using similar criteria. Don’t under estimate the value of being a good doer but I think I know what you are experiencing”

“Yes I know how important it is to deliver but having got onto the programme I find that it’s not developing me as leader – well not how I think I should be developed anyway. Everything is focussed on me not on the people that I’m supposed to be leading. It’s about tools and techniques in the main and doesn’t seem to recognise that as a leader I also need to develop others to become the leaders of tomorrow. This aspect is completely missing”

His frustration was evident for everyone to see.

“You know it’s strange but pretty much everyone that I coach is on a leadership programme of some sort or another. Some like the early career graduates have to be; others are on them through choice but most of them share a similar experience to you” I responded.

“The real irony is that my organisation is totally focussed on measuring outcomes, deliverables and the quality of everything we do. Everything, that is, apart from the quality and outcome of our leadership. It isn’t even on our radar screen”

“And that’s what you would like to talk with me about” I said.

“Yes” he replied confidently.

I rather thought it might be…..

Leadership, Learning and Curiosity…

A couple of months ago during a coaching session a recent MBA graduate asked me which courses he should consider to further develop his business skills.

“My advice would be to take up something creative preferably in the performing arts arena” I responded after a few moments thought, “As a future leader you will need to be comfortable working with groups of people in all sorts of circumstances. I’d think about joining a local amateur dramatic group or at least take a course in public speaking preferably with exposure to the media”

Later on that evening I sat reviewing the notes that I’d made during the session. My thoughts began to wander and I found myself thinking about what were the most important leadership traits – a topic that occupies a considerable portion of my waking hours.

Fundamentally I believe that at the core of Leadership are the personal traits, characteristics and values that provide the leader with the ability to create change and opportunity in any given situation. However, I believe that there is a characteristic that all great leaders have in common that enables them to transcend differing leadership situations with apparent ease.

It’s a commonly held view, by practitioners and academics alike, that a primary skill of a good leader is to be able to learn from a situation and apply that learning in a differing scenario – in essence to bring the wisdom acquired in one circumstance to the aid of another. A key differentiator of the modern leader is not only the ability to learn more from a given situation than those around him but also to take that abstract learning and apply it in differing contexts.

So what is it that the skilled leader does that others don’t?  What is the special attribute that great leaders have in abundance?

The answer in my experience is quite simply………curiosity.

The curiosity that causes them to question what others take for granted. The curiosity that opens up a world of new opportunities and possibilities. The curiosity that opens their mind to new ideas and novel insights where others only see the tried and tested. The curiosity that provides the vision to innovate and take risk. The curiosity that stimulates the challenge within them to take things to the next level. Above all the curiosity that underpins their ability to learn.

The following morning I met up with the MBA graduate over coffee.

“Remind me to talk to you about Leadership traits at our next session. I want to develop what we were talking about yesterday in a different direction.” I said as we sat down.

“Sure will” he responded. “Sounds an interesting topic, I’m really curious!”

“Good….”