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We learned that when organizational members are aligned on a strategy, when they execute consistently and effectively, when they continuously scan the environment for opportunities, and when they continuously learn and renew themselves, that organization tends to overperform, or outperform, over long periods of time. We decided to focus on a set of behaviors by which leaders align, improve execution, and improve the ability to renew an organization.
Once, I had a conversation with a CEO, and I asked him why he was leading in a certain way. He wasn’t particularly strong in engaging, but he was very strong in directing. That was his way of achieving impact. After our conversation, he shared with me that he had a very painful experience as a young executive, where he had started to bond very closely with his employees.
That created with him a leadership style which was effective, but not very engaging. So he became a very directive leader. That’s just to explain that it’s our experiences, it’s behaviors that we’ve exercised in the past that were successful, that shape our leadership style. Yes, leadership is a set of behaviors in this sense.
Observable behaviors make it very, very clear what we see happen on a day-to-day basis on the job. And that helps us analyze whether this is effective leadership or not. One more thought is that leadership is highly contextual, so it is about behaviors. But those behaviors are based on the context.
So that raises another interesting question, which is, can leadership be taught? I do believe that the concept of teaching leadership might be a bit at the core of some of the problems that we have, because leadership is a set of behaviors, and because behaviors are learned in practice—not so much in a classroom, they’re learned in practice.
Ultimately, you have to get in the water. Exactly. So it sounds almost like we’re describing leadership like a skill, something that could be learned in that way. Is that the right way to think about it? Partly. I think we look at it a bit broader than that. We look at the leadership behaviors in a context.
Let me build on that. From a skills point of view, we look at what it takes to display the leadership behaviors in the context effectively. And if a leader is able to consistently perform those behaviors over and over again, you could say that they have an underlying skill.
You have thousands of leaders who actually don’t go at that level. But they have developed their own leadership styles that work for them and work effectively in the situations they are in. However, what we very often see is, when the situation changes, they’re not able to change their behaviors, because they have not worked at that level.
And for that, we need to intervene at the mindset level, or help at the mindset level, very often. A lot of this is around increasing the awareness of the leader. And that goes for making the unconscious more conscious and giving the leader a new language to think about how they actually can become a more effective leader.
How would they approach this task as their default, if you will? And what are some of the underlying mindset shifts they might need to have to become a more effective leader? Can you just talk a little bit more about some of the typical situations where this level of growth or change is required in a leader? You mentioned, for example, maybe moving from a growth strategy to a more sort of containment strategy, or vice versa.
Just talk a little bit about some of the situations that we come across in practice. There are many reasons why we get into situations where it is desirable for someone to expand his or her leadership repertoire, when it’s time to learn some new behaviors. We very often hear about dysfunctional leaders, or leaders that actually are weak in certain dimensions.
But by and large, it is the context changing, it is the role changing, that very often prompts a leader to reflect about their own leadership capabilities and how to adapt their behaviors. The way we try to identify that is by having a good understanding of the context. We spend quite some time trying to understand, what is the mandate of the leader in this context? What are the challenges of this leader in this context? We then try to measure existing behaviors based on a 360 [assessment] so that we can almost clinically, or surgically, then help a leader grow in those areas where he or she might have the biggest bang for their buck, if I may say.
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