Nearly 20 years of consulting and coaching experience in some of the world’s most effective organisations in virtually every sector imaginable, and the absolute privilege and honour of working at a deeply personal level with the most senior leaders in these organisations has left me with some impressions of great leadership as it is lived on a daily basis.
This is not the result of hours of empirical research with endless questionnaires and data tables. Rather, it is my reflective summary of what great leadership feels like. The list speaks to the habits of brilliant leaders, and can be understood at all levels of an organisation.
Ask great questions that illuminate new solutions – flashes of inspiration, or insights as I prefer to call them, do not just happen to leaders. Great leaders create the conditions within which the people around them have great insights, and they do this by relentlessly asking questions to understand what is before them – probing, illuminating, incisive questions that cause those around them to have a broader perspective and think differently. Fertile ground indeed for new ideas.
Learn to harness and exploit your natural strengths – many of my clients assume that I am there to help them negate their weaknesses. The power of the human mind is such that you get more of what you focus on, and if you concentrate on your weak points, you enhance them. Better therefore to build and exploit your strengths… way more fun too!
Only work on the weaknesses that limit you – we all have blind spots and things that do not come naturally. Great leaders understand that the only weaknesses that matter are those that are either getting in their way or limiting them. In my coaching work, I have found that often even these performance limiting weaknesses get compensated for and minimised by focusing on strengths. So this list should be pretty short – developing weaknesses is a last resort.
Check-in with people more often than you need to – teams and individuals who are being led have a need to be heard, listened to and paid attention to. It is a basic human need to be recognised and valued. Understand this, and check in with your people multiple times a day – you are never too busy to do this. It is amazing what you learn by just chatting to people, and the motivational effect is huge.
Look at industries that are similar but different to yours – when we look at other companies that are similar to us, we simply see a reflection of ourselves. Surely the object of looking outwards is to find something different. So if you are an airline, don’t look at other airlines, look at how five-star hotels or casinos treat their customers and take lessons from that. Maybe this is a better route to finding ways to differentiate in a crowded market.
Look inwards for the solutions not outwards – in my consulting work I have the privilege of understanding how a huge range of organisations operate – with different styles, structures and strategies – it gives me a wider viewpoint and more perspectives to draw from in helping my clients. However, one thing is clear to me – that ideas and techniques do not easily transport from one context to another, and where I have seen leaders create the best solutions has been when they think carefully about what will work within their organisation, rather than look at what everybody else is doing.
Ask what, how and when rather than why – any question beginning with the word “why” is surely a probing enquiry into understanding the situation better, isn’t it? What I have observed, however, is that people get very defensive when faced with this sort of question. “Why did you do that?” has an accusatory tone to it which does not exist in the questions “What else might you have done?” or “How might you have done this differently?”.
Answer questions with questions – in a number of the leadership development programs that I have designed and led, participants are asked to spend two weeks asking questions in response to any questions that they are asked by their team. It is a tough exercise. However, the results are invariably along the lines of “I realise that my team already have the answers”, “they are simply looking for me to take the responsibility for the decision” and “they want me to do the thinking for them”. It is very seductive being able to give people answers, but as leaders we are better off taking the harder road which is to ask the insightful question that helps point the way to them finding their own answers.
Be positive in your outlook for the future – human beings are hardwired to respond to positive ideas, language, attitude and behaviour. Negative people are draining, and with the pace of organisations today we can ill afford this. As leaders we must model the way we want people to be – and being positive about the future gives people hope, and hope gives energy.
Be grounded in your assessment of today – however, it is critical that leaders see the reality of today, and ground the judgement within this even one being very positive about the future. This is essential to be able to build connection with the individuals and teams that you lead. This is where checking in with people on a regular basis is invaluable – I have seen so many leaders make assumptions about the reality within their organisations, when all they are really seeing is what they want to see. This builds distance between them and their people, and as a consequence the leadership impact is diminished.
Some of these reflections are counterintuitive, or at the very least not how we instinctively behave. I am supremely confident that if you can model at least some of these behaviours within your leadership you will see dramatic improvements. This is borne out by the thousands of managers and leaders that I have worked with over the last 20 years, and the other thing I have learnt is that only you can make these improvements.
Over to you then…read more