In our book, Applied Leadership Development: Nine Elements of Leadership Mastery, Leanne Atwater and I take readers through a leader’s journey. One might ask, “What does it look like at the end of the journey?” The first thing a leader notices when they have completed the journey is a unique “space” around them—their “space”—as a leader. Their “space” includes a robust direction for the organization. It was created by their efforts to constantly interrogate reality, by working to understand environments, proactively managing risks, establishing clear priorities and pace, and powerfully communicating the direction. Leaders sustain the direction through their thoughtful messages that ignite employees’ flames of passion about a compelling future. Messages are clear because the leader is sensitive to varying content and context throughout the organization.
High performing teams have been built. The leader realizes that his/her personal effort made the difference in shaping the team—by building diversity within the team, nurturing the team to high performance, and by confronting conflicts as they occur.
The leader also notices a compelling need to support the teams by assuring that things are getting done. Leaders understand performance management and monitoring processes, and see their job as building potential in the organization, eliminating interferences, and keeping people focused on activities that really make a difference for the long term. Goals, metrics, measures, and targets are absolutely clear from the executive levels above them, down to the front line where people make decisions and take actions.
Organization structure is clear and stable. Leaders realize the important influence structure has on employee behavior and relationships. From time to time a leader might tweak structure, but never implements a massive change unless there is compelling evidence that the organization’s culture needs transformation.
Leaders know they are role models. They model behaviors for others in the organization and constantly look for opportunities to nurture the same in others. They view their life fundamentally as an extended conversation—about the future. Through these conversations, they have built relationships with people from which a culture of support has been established. They have taken special care to set clear boundaries of right and wrong so that the organization’s brain is never anxious and always focused on productive and rewarding goals.
Creating this “space” was an enormous effort. There have been many difficult meetings, tough conversations, hard decisions, and moments when the leader learned things about himself or herself. This learning was an awakening through which change was embraced—change that propelled their leadership capability.
The final step is often the most elusive— the leader gives the “space” to their employees by stepping back and letting them deliver. Responsibilities are clear and people are empowered. The leader’s mindset is clear—being a leader is not about an official title or position; it is about who the leader is at the core. They allow the managers, employees, and the enterprise processes to deliver the results. Aspiring leaders often stumble at this point of the journey. They lack the courage to shift their focus from the “work of delivery” onto the “people who deliver.”
The objective is to “step back” but not “step away.” Once this “space” is created, a great leader supports the organization through the following actions:
– Future Domain. Sustain ongoing conversations with employees and others in the organization about the future. Don’t get stuck in the past or present. Constantly launch conversations into possibilities, and see them as living entities that create the future for the organization.
– Interrogate Reality. Do not fall prey to existing mental models. Encourage the views of others in order to challenge mental models and paradigms. Interact with employees by making proposals, checking for understanding, and checking for agreement. Avoid directing; that is not the leader’s job—managers do that. Leave the invitation open for people to speak about the ever-changing environments in which they operate.
– Behavior. Model the behaviors that others will adopt. A leader’s behavior is contagious in the organization. It is either a turbo charger or a short circuit. It can ignite passion, evoke trust, and inspire success. But, it can also be like a rock followers cannot get out of their shoe if the right behaviors are not adopted. Actively manage behavior throughout each day. Courage, integrity, and tolerance are paramount. Be seen as self-aware, calm, in control of emotions, passionate about the organization, and one who treats people with special care relative to their needs. Look for common ground.
– Messaging. Never lose sight that the leader’s relationship with the organization is driven by the messages inferred from what they say and do. Congruent messages about direction, performance, and boundaries must exist from the top to the bottom of the organization. Your messages will not be believed if your credibility is impaired. You must always be diligent about managing integrity, with no gaps between where you stand and where you aspire to be. Leaders do not have all of the information for all situations, but they generously share content and context to help employees deal with the situations they encounter. Be open, allow yourself to be vulnerable, and establish the trust through which success is created.
– Monitor Performance. Maintain a system of regular performance conversations with key delivery managers. This is the opportunity to test for emerging interferences and help people with interventions. Course corrections are often required due to changes in the environment, complexities, and new uncertainties. Conversations are key to unlocking new potential and protecting what exists.
– Support. Ninety-nine percent of the leader’s conversations involve an opportunity for coaching. Through these conversations support is created and emulated throughout the organization. Always meet people where they are emotionally, with attentive eyes, giving freedom, engaging through questions, co-creating development possibilities, and acknowledging an employee’s effort and inner character. View everyone as a “high-potential.”
Al Bolea is a leadership trainer, coach, and co-author of Applied Leadership Development: Nine Elements of Leadership Mastery.
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