It is common knowledge these days that leadership is one of the most critical elements in sustainable business success. This is not just the case for business success; it is the case for any kind of organised collective or group that is working towards a common goal. The success of any group is largely determined by how that group is led. Becoming and being a good leader is a foundational component in business success.
Leadership and commitment
This should not be surprising to anyone. But this insight does pose a challenge. The challenge is, how do you effectively lead a group of people in a manner that unlocks the best in them? This question is now more relevant than it has ever been. We live in a world in which mundane tasks have been automated. The jobs we need people to do are the creative tasks. The tasks that require the person to bring their whole selves to the party, not just their hands and feet.
Fundamentally, we need commitment from people. This is what any successful group of people has. It has people who are committed to the cause. Who take on the groups objectives as their own objectives. So the question can be rephrased as this: how do you lead people in a manner that unlocks commitment?
The behavioural approach to being a good leader
Ordinarily people reduce this problem to a behavioural problem. This is a natural thing to do because leadership is, to a large extent, a matter of doing things to and for people. A person who wants to figure out how to lead well will probably ask themselves; “what should I be doing as a leader?”
The answer that will most readily come to mind for people is a long list of behaviours that are required of a leader. The leader should listen; the leader should show empathy; he/she should provide means; he/she should send people on training if needed, etc. In this way, we can come up with a long list of behaviours that are required of a leader.
There is an appropriate place for this sort of behavioural list. But this behavioural approach unfortunately does not get to the heart of the matter.
What do leadership assessments tell us about being a good leader?
One of the ways in which the deficiency of the behavioural approach shows up is in leadership assessments. At Schuitema we run a leadership assessment that has 42 questions that cover the entire spectrum of required leadership behaviours. Direct reports provide the data for the leadership assessment reports by providing direct feedback on the leader against the 42 behavioural criteria covering the entire leadership spectrum.
When we do statistical analysis of the data sets gathered from hundreds of leadership assessments what we find is that there is an extremely high convergent validity. This, in part, indicates suspiciously high correlation between all leadership behaviours.
What this means is that one can consistently predict that a leader getting a high scores for one behaviour will likely get a high score for every other behaviour. Similarly, a leader who gets a low score for one behaviour is likely to get a low score for every other behaviour.
People assess your behaviour based on assumptions about your intent
On the surface of it, this may seem to indicate that leadership is an all or nothing affair from a behavioural point of view. But this is not the case. We should not take this to indicate that leaders will either do everything required of them, or do nothing required of them. Rather, it indicates that people assess leaders at a level that is deeper than behaviour. Put simply, what your people think about you as an individual has a dramatic impact of how they rate your leadership behaviour against a scorecard.
What this indicates is that people do not assess your behaviour independently of their opinion about you. What they think of who you are is present in their mind at every point when responding to leadership behaviour questions. They are not actually rating each and everything that you do; rather, they are actually rating you as an individual. They are just looking through the lens of whatever leadership behaviour is on the table. We can include as many behaviours as we want to in the instrument we use to measure you; and it will make little difference to the overall result. This is because we are measuring a single thing; do your people trust you, full stop. This is why we get such high correlations between different leadership behaviours when we run leadership assessments.
People measure you against a single variable, can you be trusted?
These results we get reinforce the original research done by Etsko Schuitema that produced the Care & Growth model. When Etsko conducted the original research the results were conclusive. What Etsko found in the course of his research is that TRUST is the single dominant variable at play in hierarchical relationships at work. Whatever your people think about you is a product of whether or not they believe that they can trust you. This includes their opinions about how well you stack up in terms of required leadership behaviours.
This should not be surprising because we know that actions are by their intentions. When judging a person’s actions, we are not actually that concerned about what they did. Rather, we are much more interested in why they did what they did. What a person thinks about the “what” of an action will be determined by what they think of the “why” of the action. And, what they think about the why of the action will be strongly influenced about their opinion of the person who acts.
And this is appropriate. You should be sceptical of a person who does the right “what” for the wrong “why”. But this is also a caution to leaders. Your people will be consistently making assumptions about your why. These assumptions can either be forgiving and unforgiving, but, rest assured, these assumptions are being made.
Sincerity is the heart of being a good leader
Thankfully, in most cases, the truth prevails. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognise that the truth is not always flattering. This is because we are constantly grappling with our own conditionality. And this is the heart of the leadership challenge, to be unconditional about the contributions we make to people. Unconditional giving is very hard to consistently achieve because we have a default setting that looks for reciprocity in relationships and so sets conditions.
This means that leadership poses a much more subtle and profound problem to us than is immediately apparent. There is a requirement of sincerity that sits at the heart of leadership. Leadership in its truest sense requires from us an absolutely sincere and unconditional commitment to doing what is appropriate for the other in every moment. This is an ideal because none of us get it right all the time. But the sincere pursuit of this is one of the most ennobling endeavours a human being can pursue.
To read more on this topic, please read Leadership: The Care & Growth Model