Leadership : Demystifying Today’s Leadership Challenges

Duncan Miles worked in the UK Public Service Sector as Head of Learning and Development within the Office for National Statistics. More recently Duncan is Director of Inspire Training and Consultancy Limited.

See www.inspiretraining.net


Never ending change; the unceasing pressures to increase the quality and quantity of our products and services whilst reducing our costs and production and delivery times; the necessity of meeting the needs of more demanding and less loyal customers; and the need to provide effective development and support for our work teams all go to make the life of today’s leaders interesting and challenging.

There are many books that have been written about leadership and advice aplenty as to how to enhance your leadership abilities. This article looks to demystify the process of leadership and to provide practical and pragmatic advice to those new to the role and those who are already well established leaders.

Let us begin with one of my favourite definitions of leadership: ‘The ability to secure the willing commitment of people to the achievement of specific objectives’.  Why do I like this definition so much? Well it incorporates a number of key factors.

These are: ‘willing commitment’; ‘people’; specific objectives’ and ‘ability’

Willing Commitment

How do we get this level of commitment from those working for us? Why is it that for certain people you will always go that extra mile, whilst for others you will perhaps do the bare minimum to get by?  The difference appears to be in the quality of the relationship that you have with the leader in question. Those who you have a good relationship with usually have three very important factors going for them.

Self-belief - good leaders have a strong sense of self belief and belief in their team’s ability to deliver. Recent research at Henley Management College has highlighted this sense of self belief as being a key contributing factor for those successful skippers in the BT Global challenge, above those of the less successful skippers. The sense of self-belief requires that each person knows their own strengths and weaknesses and is authentic in talking about and acknowledging them. All too often less effective leaders pretend to be good at everything and put pressure upon themselves to be all things to all men and women. They pretend to be the ‘finished article’ and almost become information proof to learning and advice.

Self-awareness - good leaders are very self aware. They have a good sense of what has got them where they are today and a sound understanding of their leadership attributes. A good leader will know the answers to the following questions and will happily share the answers with their teams and colleagues.

  • What is your reputation as a leader (how do you know)?
  • What or who made you the leader you are today?
  • How do you ‘add-value’ in your leadership role?
  • Why on earth should anyone follow you as a leader?

These are powerful questions and a good leader will have reflected upon these issues throughout their own development and growth into the role.

Empathy - good leaders are very aware of the impact that they have upon those around them. In today’s language they are emotionally intelligent. A simple test for leaders to consider is whether they give energy to a group or do they drain energy from a group. Do they brighten a room when they enter or brighten it when they leave.

People

Leadership is all about people. The most expensive resource for many businesses is their staff costs yet frequently we focus on outputs and services without looking to see how we can get the best from those working for us. People achieve special things outside of work, good leaders identify ways in which to get special effort and achievement in the workplace.

Specific objectives

Quite simply individuals and teams need to know what they have to achieve. Good leaders involve and engage teams in establishing targets for themselves and inevitably those teams set themselves higher performance targets than their bosses would have set for them. Having a sense of being in control or at least able to influence what is going on around them is a massive motivational factor for people. 

Ability

Good leaders are not born. As the word ‘ability’ suggests, leadership is something that can be learnt, developed and nurtured. It takes practice, feedback and support to become effective in your leadership role. It is a role that will continually grow and one in which you will forever be learning. The day that you think you have arrived and achieved all there is to know and do in leadership is the day to get out!

Recent Initiatives

Recently within the Home Civil Service there has been a drive to improve the quality of leadership. Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, identified the 4 ‘Ps’ (Pride – Pace – Passion – Professionalism) as a way to enhance the quality of leadership. I feel the 4 ‘Ps’ apply equally to the private sector as they do to the public sector.

Pride

How can we as leaders help people to have a sense of pride in what they do? We can ensure that everyone knows how they fit into the work of the organisation and how their work contributes to the outputs and outcomes delivered by the organisation. In Peter Senge’s book, ‘The 5th Discipline’ he explains the importance of alignment of individuals with the organisation’s mission, vision and values as being an integral factor in determining the overall success of the business. He describes the various level of engagement as: Commitment, Enrolement, Compliance, Grudging Compliance, Apathy, and Sabotage. Successful businesses obviously have a far higher percentage of people within the first three categories.

Pace

This is all about moving forward, ensuring progress is made and quick wins achieved. Thus establishing and maintaining a forward momentum. People feel good when they have completed something, conversely in-completions simply drain energy from people, so as a leader we must recognise and celebrate those completions and successes. Pace is also about the decision making process. Ensure delegation is effective, let people make decisions. Mistakes will happen, especially during periods of change. Ensure you and those of your team learn from those mistakes. There is considerable learning to be obtained from ‘grand failures’ as well as ‘grand successes’. All too often less effective leaders punish mistakes or create a culture of fear and retribution where mistakes are hidden rather than nurturing a culture of learning. As a leader people will take the lead from you and you can either make or break a successful culture.

Passion

Once again this is very much about the vision and values. If people know that they make a difference they will be more passionate about what they do. Imagine the difference in mind set when you compare these two outlooks on a similar job within a government department. When asked what they did for a job, two people from similar work areas said: “I produce spreadsheets of data”. The other person said “I’m helping to create a bigger, better bonnier Great Britain for my children and their children’s children”. Both of these people were doing the same day job and the latter was passionate about the work knowing that they were making a huge difference.

Professionalism

You can define a ‘profession’ as having its own common language and tools and its own set of values or ethics. Doctors, for example, have common tools, techniques and language together with the hippocratic oath. Leadership should be no different. There are competence frameworks that outline key behaviours; strategic planning tools and techniques that allow us to organise our businesses; and importantly organisational and / or team values that drive behaviours and the way that we operate with people who we have contact with inside and outside of our organisations. The skill is often to ensure that whatever these criteria are that they are widely understood and disseminated within our own organisations.

Leadership is changing, no longer can we rely on hierarchy, chains of command, corporate loyalty, accepted norms where people respect their elders / seniors and do not challenge the way we have always done things. Leadership is now much more about leading multi-disciplinary teams, influencing those around us without having the formal authority, creating ad-hoc networks of power and encouraging commitment.


Copyright 2007 Duncan Miles

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