ARE WE ASKING TOO MUCH? GREAT LEADERSHIP AT ALL LEVELS
By Denise North, Published June 2018
One of the most exciting features of modern organisations is how the nature of leadership is changing. We have dramatically broadened our understanding of what leadership is, who can be a leader, and what that will look like. In response to the changing shape of organisations, we find leadership amongst sales forces, production units, and facility management teams – as well as in the C-Suite.
We’re leaving behind leadership stereotypes
The journey to leadership is no longer a single path with clear markers identifying each step along it. We used to believe that leaders were born, and that leadership looked and behaved pretty much the same everywhere (until very recently a white, grey-haired man in a suit!). We learnt how to be a leader by imitating the style and behaviour of those more senior to us. We didn’t think we could lead until we were tapped on the shoulder, and had a title that included the words ‘senior’, ‘chief’, ‘executive’ or other leadership honorifics.
We’re looking for leadership at all levels
Perhaps one of the most important changes is that we are expecting people at all levels to be leaders. We are asking them to be aware of their own greatness: their strengths, learning and operating styles, and their experience, as well as their technical skills. We’re asking managers in particular to activate their leadership capability wherever they are in the company, to deliver results and to play a role in leading their teams to great performance.
People can discover, understand and activate leadership regardless of their seniority or role. The pay-off can be sensational, however organisations need to change their thinking and practices to help their managers at all levels to unlock their leadership capability.
What does leadership at all levels look like?
A while back a young manager I know, working in a large organisation, got in touch to say that something weird had just happened. She was working on a global systems project and a recent phase had not gone well. She had some ideas about why this had happened, and in preparation for a review meeting, reached out to other project participants for their input. Suffice to say she got some very incisive responses. She prepared a detailed brief identifying causative factors and shared this with her line manager and relevant others.
The review meeting went ahead and after it her manager got in touch and asked if she would coach him on the matters raised in her brief, and not to worry if it felt strange. We talked about it and she decided to put the weird to one side and go ahead with his request.
Leadership comes in unexpected packages
It’s a powerful story, first because it’s about the junior manager realising the importance of her insights and those of her peers “on the ground” and finding a way to contribute them constructively and influence upwards. Secondly it’s about the leadership of a manager able to recognise a valuable contribution, and confident enough to seek out advice from his junior. Both of them were able to be leaders, probably supported by a healthy culture of leadership. Would that be likely to happen in your organisation?
Revamp your leadership development playbook
To develop the kind of culture that accepts this broader view of leadership, organisations need to encourage leadership behaviours at all levels. The trickle down approach, where significant investment is made in the most senior levels but then abruptly stops, is not an effective way to build leadership. We also need to re-envision what leadership means and looks like: for example reverse coaching, upwards influencing and lateral leadership are all leadership practices.
Another traditional and questionable practice is ‘one and done’ training. While it gets you out of the office and might be fun and even inspiring, it often doesn’t achieve the change an organisation needs to get from its investment. Coaching based programs on the other hand, provide the support, encouragement and feedback we need to internalise new ideas, practise new behaviours and change the way we engage with others.
Mix it up and achieve real change
You can achieve more impact by employing a range of leadership development interventions across the organisation, and when those interventions are coaching based, they have a higher chance of success. My experience with some of these programs – Executive Coaching, Superior Team Performance or Coachlive programs – is that when they have a coaching element at their centre, they have the ability to really change an organisation’s culture.
If changes in leadership thinking and behaviour are rippling across the organisation, rather than waiting for it to trickle down, you can really achieve great leadership at all levels. Not asking too much at all!