Effective leadership starts with simplicity

What does it take to be an effective leader in the 21st century?

Most of us are all too aware of the global trends impacting the world of work. The question of ‘growth’ is one that arises regularly with our clients.

Since the financial crisis, the world has lost 30% of its annual growth. If this is the new normal, where will future growth come from? Furthermore, what is the impact on organisations competing within the same global markets?

While the question of growth is important, it can mask or simplify a much more complicated environment. While growth has slowed significantly at a global level, this will, of course, look and feel very different from one organisation to another, and from one individual to another. There is more wealth, greater access to education, and more information than ever before; yet there is more poverty in the world, increasingly scarce skills in key sectors, shortages in others, and poor knowledge transfer. We have also moved to a world in which one change in our global context has a ricochet effect in multiple geographies, economies and politics.

It is against this background that we asked the question: “What does it take to be an effective 21st century leader?” And it is because of this complex environment that we believe a simpler, more straightforward approach to assessing leadership effectiveness is required.

Leadership effectiveness model

We recognise there are three key components that underpin effective leadership:

    Identify the key characteristics of effective leadership > Fertile ground for growth
    Identify the capabilities to make a difference > Focus
    Change criteria to measure and reward effective leadership > Enhanced business performance

To explain these in more detail, let’s consider where we want to end up – effective leadership outcomes. What should leaders strive to achieve?

We asked leaders about the impact that they believe leaders should have on organisations and employees.

Unsurprisingly, ‘increased business performance’ was the dominant outcome that is considered to be an absolute essential for all leaders to pursue. However, there were four others:

  1. Building an individual and organisational sense of purpose in their workforce
  2. Creating meaningful career management
  3. Increasing levels of engagement
  4. Moving towards a more human organisational culture.

Leadership effectiveness model

Our research has revealed an overwhelming sense of clarity and consensus that these five outcomes are the result of effective leadership – no more, no less. By changing the criteria to measure and reward effective leadership, organisations and individual leaders will be able to track and review progress against all five of these critical outcomes.

What do leaders need to do?

Our research identified three duties that an effective leader will need to undertake in order to achieve success:

  1. DRIVE ORGANISATIONAL PERFORMANCE: The ability to provide purpose and a shared vision. Highly skilled individuals in this area are able to navigate short and long-term priorities, build organisational capability, and balance the need for global consistency with local relevance. They are adept at collaborating at all levels, across all hierarchies and networks. Crucially, they inspire and engage individuals, teams and organisations during times of change and transformation.
  2. UNLEASH TALENT: Critical to this ability is the capacity to demonstrate integrity – both in relationships with others, and in decision-making processes; in building trust and showing selflessness (‘we before I’). High-performing individuals in this area regularly ask for, give, receive and act upon feedback. They create opportunities for others to grow and have meaningful careers, aligning the needs of individuals to those of the organisation. More than managing, developing and growing talent, we believe leaders should strive to unleash talent, allowing talented individuals to move to other parts of the organisation or market.
  3. DARE TO LEAD: Perhaps our favourite competency, because it recognises something that we all articulate when describing our most well-regarded leaders: bravery. The courage to make decisions, take risks and seize opportunities is at the heart of this area. Authority is challenged constructively and innovation is rewarded and encouraged. Individuals with high levels of ability in this area demonstrate self-confidence and the ability to change and adapt their own approach.

Effective leadership enablers

In order to demonstrate the three identified leadership capabilities, we have identified four ‘enablers’ or innate personality attributes. These are traits that are hard wired; while they can be nurtured and developed, they are non-negotiable ingredients that are vital to effective leadership.

  • BRIGHTNESS: A foundation for successful leadership, it’s broader than mere intelligence, and includes being intellectually curious and sharp, with a strong appetite to continuously learn.
  • ENDURANCE: Highly resilient, tenacious and has stamina – this area focuses on a leader’s personality over time, and not just in the short-term.
  • ADAPTABILITY: Comfortable with ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty – all three words are equally important, and often happen simultaneously.
  • DRIVE: Has the hunger, energy and desire to be successful.

A desire for simplicity

Throughout a series of client events and meetings held in Q4 2015, we shared the outcomes of our research and thinking. Feedback was overwhelmingly positive for a straightforward, non-jargon approach to defining effective leadership.

It’s worth noting that certain terms can be seen to have a ‘gender bias’ – for example, would men be more likely to be recognised as ‘daring to lead’ compared to their female counterparts? Similar to working with any model, it’s important to understand the cultural environment in which you are working, and help individuals to understand definitions within the context of their organisation and existing preconceptions and norms.

Nonetheless, what is clear is a desire for simplicity in our increasingly complex world. In the Human Age, where the ability to attract, retain and develop talent sets successful organisations apart from the rest, it is more critical than ever that we articulate and measure effective leadership on its ability to achieve results that are meaningful for the individuals and teams that support our leaders.

Visit rightmanagement.co.uk for more on this topic.