Leading well: 4 critical behaviours?

shutterstock_142550515Few people would argue against the importance of leaders in effective organisations. Similarly most see them as vital in helping organisations through change. We recognise that where leadership is missing or misaligned, things do not go well. As a result, leadership has been high on the curriculum for management analysis and development for many decades. Thousands of articles and researchers have pored over its shape, its impact, its origins, how to sustain it etc etc.

It is a huge area and seemingly still growing – but not without controversy! Analysts still struggle to agree over its definition, components, drivers, roots and impact, even before the disagreements begin on how best to encourage its development.

So it is perhaps not surprising that my attention was drawn this month to a fascinating but short article in McKinsey Quarterly (http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/leading_in_the_21st_century/decoding_leadership_what_really_matters)  this month that suggests that, in their analysis of twenty different leadership skills, just four represent 90% of the difference between good and poor leadership, as represented in the health of their organisations.

There is not enough information for me to comment on the quality of the research base but McKinsey typically do a good job in an area (management science) that is as much art as science so there almost always something to learn from what they suggest.

Their conclusions are as interesting as much for the sixteen skills that are not highlighted as for the four that are chosen. Looking at the full list of twenty skills (which are defined at a high level) the question that struck me was a simple one:

Looking at the whole list, and knowing that just four seem to deliver 90% of the difference between good and poor, would I pick out the selected skills?

It is difficult to tell after sight of the article but I suspect that I along with many people would not.

We might have chosen one or two of them but few of us would have selected the four as a package and then I doubt that we would have given them the apparent significance that the study suggests of them almost entirely explaining the differential results.

Interestingly, if we had read the list and latched onto some obvious leadership skills like: clarifying objectives, giving praise, making good decisions or developing a shared mission, we would have chosen unwisely. None of these make the cut.

The four key skills are:

Being supportive
Having a strong results orientation
Looking for different perspectives
Solving problems effectively

What an intriguing bunch of skills.

Why these four?
Do they really represent the key (90%) determinants of differential leadership?
Does everyone cover the basics so well that it is these ones only that make the difference or is it that these alone are the keys to better results?
Are these skills to focus on in development programmes?
What should this mean for how we should change what we currently do?

It is difficult to know the answers to these questions.Yet I am struck by the four as a package.

Taken together, they seem to build on a foundation about attitudes to people that resonate with me for the world of change and innovation.

If the question had been, which of these skills are the most important when you are leading people into and through change, then I suspect we might have put some of these to the top of our lists.

They represent leadership of a kind that recognises the reality of living under uncertainty, of needing to do new things and of trying to make progress when it is not always clear what is the best way forward and how much progress can be made. They are great skills to have.

Maybe indeed that is what it is.

Social, technological, market and logistical change all around the globe is moving at an unprecedented rate. We face new challenges – to keep up and these are collective challenges that leaders need to engage all staff on because this is only way to succeed.

Maybe this is the story of where we are in organisations all around the world. The rate of change has so increased that we need to speed up change in our own organisations if they are to keep pace. People on the frontline know this and recognise leadership that makes this easier – and conversely leadership or management that makes it more difficult.

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Gaza – lots of heat, no light

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As we enter the third week of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza and the bloodshed rises to over 1400 civilians on the Palestinian side, you wonder whether it can only be the horrified stadium of global observers who are asking how the assault can possibly help secure any real change.

The Israelis say that they want security – from terrorist attacks through tunnels, rockets from the sky and the narrow-minded threats of Hamas. Their immediate aim is to destroy all the tunnels that protect these tools of terror.

Yet even a small amount of consideration of what possible end stage outcomes can be would show that the destruction, bloodshed and opprobrium that this assault is generating is simply not worth it. 2 Israeli civilians killed in recent years by rockets have been exchanged for what? Thirty times that many Israeli soldiers killed and a new generation in Palestine that hates the Israelis.

There is no scenario that can be envisaged that provides a lasting security solution, other than one where both sides sit down and negotiate a settlement that allows both sides to live in some sense of freedom. The current stalemate is unstable and unsustainable.

It is easy to see how the assault starts: an opponent who wants to wipe your nation off the map, who continually attacks you and whose violent rhetoric equally refuses to work out a stable solution. The sense of rights infringed and injustice provokes an aggrieved nation.

The emotion.

Words about rights and justice.

All sound reasonable and can be said by both sides.

But there is no end game here. Gaza cannot just disappear. It cannot remain the open air prison that it is today. Similarly Israel cannot just disappear and is one of the few stable democracies in the Middle East.

The limitations of the violent talk of Hamas are evident in the ineffectiveness of its attacks.

The sadness of the current position and the events of the last few weeks is that it demonstrates graphically how real change is only possible when those involved really want it and are prepared to face the difficulties that will be encountered in achieving it and sometimes that is still too much.

In this case it still seems to be the case … for both sides.

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“So what DO you want?”

8038863343_731f18f167_mHow many times do you find a difficult conversation with someone provoking this feeling inside. A person can be so awkward and so militant that sometimes it is the only question that we are left with as reason seems to vacated the discussion completely!

We all know conversations that rise to this incredible level of stress and anxiety. The reasons can be varied. The purpose of the argument can have got lost in the discussion. The demands can be contradictory. The needs impossible to reconcile. The rationale now totally lost in illogicality.

At these times, ‘So what do you want?’ is often the question that really begs to be asked. However, we all recognise that even when this is the case it can be almost impossible to ask it ….at least in a way that is really a question asking for an honest and reflective answer rather than a statement of exasperation at the impasse evident in the conversation.

There is ample evidence that ‘emotions’ trump ‘rationality’ in our brains. They get to the action centres ahead of any messages from our prefrontal cortex (the rational bit that helps to moderate what we think about something and how we act) and pump up the body reducing the desire to pay any attention to it when it finally catches on what is going on!

Yet especially when trying to handle a change it is often this sort of question that is essential if the conversation is to unlock the route to a solution rather than simply more aggro.

Only last year, one of the great thinkers on culture and change, Edgar Schein wrote about the power of questions put honestly and gently in ‘Humble Inquiry’ (Berrett-Koehler 2013). Others have similarly reflected on the powerful effect of even simply listening, and being recognised for doing so, in unlocking thinking in the other person.

In a difficult situation where someone is not helping things to go forward, often my wife will use precisely this approach with shop assistants, customer service staff and others. She will explain the situation that she is in and the answers that she has been given in trying to get a solution and ask them what they recommend.

Honestly asking a question demands a thinking reply not an emotional one and if asked in the best way can tip even a difficult conversation over to a route to a solution.

It is too easy to ‘get stuck in’ in a confrontation that will only escalate into total impasse when what is needed is an artful question.

Questions are powerful allies in change if used well.

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The challenge of labels

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The powerful Coca-Cola brand

We like labels. The longevity and attraction of many of our favourite brands testifies to this and as every marketeer knows the label carries a lot of meaning. If you research what consumers think about Coca-Cola you will see people ascribe all manner of associations and values to the brand on top of its physical characteristics. These more even than the taste explains the persistence of the brand and they are the themes of the millions of dollars that Coke spend behind their product in advertising, point of sale, sponsorship and other marketing tools.

The label is a shorthand that is easy to identify and remember. The shape, colour and name all conjuring up these associations whenever someone sees it and instantly reminding people of familiar associations.

This patterning skill is a useful thing for us. We could never shop a supermarket with 30000 lines in 40 minutes without it! However, it brings with it other more difficult attributes in a situation of change, where people often resort to labels to describe those with different views, ideas or solutions and often with the intent of painting less attractive values onto them.

Labels needs to be very wisely used:

The associations that you and I have will not be the same – even though we use the same label. It obscures rather than illuminates.

The label has an exclusive quality. You either wear it or you don’t. It can often lead to either/or rather than and/and thinking.

With people, labels have a depersonalised quality. This can be seen in the recent television programmes that have looked at immigration in the UK and sought to pair up locals to look at individual immigrant stories. In every case the local view changes once people engage with each other. People cannot be contained within a label.

It is not mere rhetoric to avoid using labels when evaluating a situation or facing an aggressive questioner. It is important to challenge the use of them as frequently best resolution can be found under the surface.

Note to self – when I describe a person or group by a name, am I falling into the trap of painting them out of adding any value to the future solution?


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