Finding a 'real leadership' mindset
09 July 2012
Poor leadership and inept leaders often go unnoticed in the good times, but things are very different when times are tough – leaders are visible and exposed. This is when outstanding leadership is crucial but very difficult to deliver, says Professor Graham Jones, who offers some tips on creating a real leadership culture
Employees need to be able to trust their leaders, so being open and letting them know how things stand is paramount. But leaders must also continue to focus on a strategy for moving forward and keeping their people focused on delivering a quality service.
It is very demanding to do leadership well. This is why a leader's underlying motives are so important.
There are two types of leader: real leaders and safe leaders. At the extreme, safe leaders are driven by their need for rewards, status and power and are unwilling to put themselves on the line because of the threat of losing their position if they get it wrong. Safe leaders are risk-averse and will sit tight in the hope that more favourable conditions are just around the corner. There is little innovation or challenging orthodoxy, since their focus is exclusively on micro-managing the short term. In tough times, their focus is on cutting costs and probably putting a halt to training and development activities.
Real leaders, on the other hand, are driven much more by the challenge of making a difference. They become more prominent in tough times; they are highly visible and make things happen. They still have to manage the short-term challenges, but their mind is more on investing for the future. Real leaders view difficulties as being a time when development is most needed.
The differences between real and safe leaders are particularly pronounced during turbulent times for public sector organisations. The safe leader really values the prestige and the financial package that comes with leadership. To them, not taking risks means ensuring no mistakes. They withdraw into a safety zone. Now is the time to avoid conflict and it becomes too risky to challenge the views of their peers or bosses.
At the other end of this continuum is the real leader. Real leaders stand by their decisions and tell it how it is. In turbulent times their personal resources are important, because they are highly visible to their people. Their resilience and optimism, balanced with realism, strength of character, care and determination will be very evident.
But so will the fact that they are human beings like everyone else. They have doubts and worries and there is no point hiding them. Real leaders are authentic and their impact is much more a function of how they are than what they do.
So how do you create a real leadership culture? Real leaders hold the key to the future health of organisations. Yet, too often, organisations allow safe leaders to perpetuate the status quo and hinder innovation.
For example, organisations still make the mistake of promoting people based on criteria related almost exclusively to functional expertise rather than leadership capability. They are rewarded for being a good functional manager and the safer option when they find themselves with the difficult challenge of leading people is to bury themselves in micro-management. Organisations should instead place greater emphasis on identifying a real leadership mindset and move towards a real leadership culture by emphasising rewarding innovation instead of merely paying lip-service to it. They should create environments that encourage calculated risks and tolerate responsible mistakes if they are to embrace true innovation.
The essence of creating a real leadership culture lies in supporting those leaders who strive to spend most of their time at the real end of the continuum, and challenging those stuck at the safe end.
Challenging safe leaders
• Get them to create and communicate visions to their teams. This will ensure they are proactive in focusing on the future and, by going public on it with their team, become visible and own it
• Ensure they receive proper developmental feedback on a regular basis. Safe leaders are quick to dismiss any feedback they don't like. Find a way of ensuring they receive feedback that compels them to action
• Provide them with a challenging coach who can push them outside their safety zone; encourage risk-talking, make the tough decisions and get them to think beyond what they believe has worked in the past
• Help them set goals that will drive their day-to-day leadership behaviour rather than the annual review goals that get forgotten for 12 months.
Supporting real leaders
• Provide them with access to the latest thinking on leadership. Send them to conferences and seminars where they can feed off like-minded leaders from other organisations
• Give them a voice in the organisation by facilitating access to its most senior leaders. They want to share innovative ideas with their bosses and to provide feedback on what is and what is not working
• Provide access to a coach and mentor to bounce ideas off, and who can help them deal with pressure and the feelings of isolation that high visibility can bring.