An evil plan – not one of the 5 key characteristics of effective leadership!

July 29 2014

Bad news does travel.

At a recent breakfast meeting I chatted with a CEO who reflected, uncomfortably but critically, on another leader in his field. This other CEO is apparently losing the respect of peers through behaviours that clash significantly with the respected culture and values of their industry. My companion felt (quite correctly) that even a half-good recruitment process would have pointed out some of the potential dangers of this appointment in advance. To deepen the problem, the board in this organisation is not aligned, and indeed only one member is involved in setting strategy with the CEO. Danger signs everywhere.

We left that conversation around then. I reflected afterwards. I hadn’t sought out this account of an apparently destructive leader. But it came loud and clear. If it’s an accurate account, things will come unstuck in this business one way or another. So what is this leader doing wrong? And conversely, how do you become the best leader you can be?

Consider this example in the context of the 5 key characteristics of high performance leadership, based on the transformational leadership model.

1. Trust

We all know some people that we’ve instinctively trusted as leaders, and also some we have not. What leads to distrust? It can come from not delivering on promises, not acknowledging people for their contribution, undermining associates, inviting input and then implementing only one’s own ideas, delegating with either too much detail or not enough context, micromanaging and ‘hovering’, and more… It’s easy to create distrust, and tough (though possible) to recover from it.

Several traits, demonstrated by behaviours, lead to a sense of trust. We’re proud to be associated with a trusted leader. We see them going beyond pure self-interest for the good of the team, organisation and commonly the community. They act in ways that build others’ respect for them. Without overdoing it, they display a sense of power and confidence, yet are happy also with empowering those around them, allowing them opportunities to shine, and acknowledging good contributions, both big and small, from their colleagues and team members. As a result, we believe in them.

2. Integrity

The concept of integrity includes notions of ‘wholeness’ or consistency – in vision, values, systems, principles, expectations, actions, outcomes, and KPIs. It means a deep commitment to knowing what the right thing is, and doing it, whatever the circumstances. People who live with integrity are incorruptible. They talk about the values and beliefs that drive them and activate the organisation. They frequently refer to a sense of purpose and collective mission. In decision-making, they consider not only the bottom line but also the moral and ethical consequences. This ethical commitment will be clear in ethics statements or policies that are not just stuck up on the wall, but are integrated into all business processes, communicated to everyone, and lived by on a daily basis. It’s not just having a moral code, it’s living that code and leading by example, “walking the talk”. Integrity comes across in communication too – a leader with integrity will communicate authentically, listen attentively and encourage tolerance of divergent views. They will be reliable, accountable, respectful, accessible, and transparent. A lack of integrity can ruin careers and organisations – and this has been demonstrated many times including notably at Enron where 20,000 jobs were suddenly destroyed as a result. As the old line goes, ‘the fish rots from the head’. I’ve not actually tested this, but presume it’s true – it certainly is when it comes to integrity. It’s one of the top attributes of a great leader.

3. Inspiration

If you worked for a truly inspirational leader, would it influence your desire to stay with that employer? It’s a sad fact that over 50% of Australian workers are thinking of changing their job, right now. While change is needed and important at times, this high figure points to a level of dissatisfaction that results partly from a lack of inspiration. And while personal motivation is ultimately down to the individual, great leaders help provide the inspiration that drives it.

How? Well take a look at someone like Richard Branson.  He embodies most of the elements that underlie ‘inspirational’. He seems to be one of the most optimistic people around, and will tackle absolutely anything with a belief that it can be done (well reflected in his rallying cry of ‘screw it, let’s do it’). He speaks optimistically about the future, spelling out a compelling vision, firing up the team about what needs to be done, and expressing confidence that their goals will be achieved. Branson explained that his interest in life ‘…comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them’. He’s not the only one, but he is undoubtedly inspirational.

4. Innovation

Branson is also innovative, and encourages this in his teams. He’s said ‘I’ve had great fun turning quite a lot of different industries on their head and making sure those industries will never be the same again…’  As a model for innovative thinking, he noted that ‘you never know with these things when you’re trying something new what can happen. This is all experimental.’ He was driven to be involved in creating ‘…something very special, something quite large and something quite exciting’.

From the transformational perspective, innovation can mean willingness to challenge critical assumptions and to question whether they remain useful, to invite differing perspectives and encourage others to look at problems from different angles, and to suggest new ways of looking at how to get the job done. What this does is really open up the innovative powers of a person and a team, and enable the creation of something new, and potentially ground-breaking.

5. Personal consideration

The transformational leader doesn’t just lead their team at a global level; they invest directly and personally in the people they lead. They put time into teaching and coaching. They treat their people as individuals rather than just ‘members of a group’, and this makes a huge difference to how each person feels. Knowing that a leader really cares about our different needs, abilities and aspirations brings us to commit more, deliver more and enjoy it more. When a leader helps us develop our strengths, we take this as proof that they care, and we return this with bringing more of ourselves into our work.

Together, these five components of transformational leadership lead others to contributing that almost mythical ‘discretionary effort’. As well as believing more in the mission, working harder and being more innovative and productive for our leaders, we tend to become their advocates. We are more satisfied with our work and with our leaders. And we tend not to be seeking to leave quite so desperately!

Back to the ‘not so great’ leader

So what about the CEO who’s risking the respect of their peers? From the brief account, they are being innovative, but by attacking the markets of others in an NFP field that has traditionally respected boundaries – so trust is much reduced and their integrity is being questioned (by peers, I don’t know how their staff feel).  I also don’t have the information to assess their powers of inspiration. However it’s clear that peers at least see them as low in personal consideration – they are seen to be disinterested in peers in their network, or worse, to be outrightly aggressive towards them. So they score low on at least 3 of the 5.

We’ve all heard people tell of great leaders – though unfortunately the stories are more often about the not so great ones. While greatness may not be for all of us, becoming a much better leader is very attainable…

Implement the 5 key elements

With a leader who uses the 5 key elements of transformational leadership, it results in growth for everyone they work with, along with huge benefits for the business, and ultimately the community.

And while some leaders are perhaps born with this skillset, it can be learnt. A 360-degree instrument is available to assess a leader’s impact against the transformational model. It also tests for transactional leadership and ‘non-leadership’. It’s highly accurate and gives informative feedback against an extensively researched knowledgebase. This is the sort of tool that can help leaders transform their approach, and powerful drivers of positive change. Check in with me if you’d like more info.