The new leadership model
The changes happening in performance management are the visible signs of a big underlying change in relationships in organisations. Things have become much more fluid. In the new model managers support and help build a shared context in which their teams can make things happen but they expect their teams to show high levels of autonomy and co-creation. This is what empowerment has become. ‘Strategy’ then becomes this shared context – a common understanding that helps people choose what to do, how to do it and understand why they’re doing it. You could almost call it ‘liquid strategy’ (and someone will), a sort of primal broth in which living things can organise themselves and grow.
This is a very big change which has gradually happened. Thirty years ago you could have taken a maxim like Harold Geneen’s of ATT – ‘management manages by making decisions and by seeing that those decisions are implemented’ – and it would have seemed common sense. Now it doesn’t, though it obviously survives as a value in use in a lot of companies.
Given this kind of change, the idea that a manager really just needs a big brain and a big stick won’t work anymore. Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD is interesting because she’s very plugged-in but critical of current leader development and may be an indication of where things are going. Her basic line is that you develop personal leadership outside-in. In other words you don’t spend ages introspecting and analysing your strengths, you deliberately seek opportunities to do new and uncomfortable things as a leader and grow by doing them.
‘It is nearly impossible to think out how to reinvent ourselves. Change usually happens the other way around: transition follows a first-act-and-then-think sequence because who we are and what we do are so tightly connected. … identities change in practice, as we start doing new things, interacting with different people, and reinterpreting our life stories through the lens of the emerging possibilities.’
This squares with what we have really seen in our leader development work over the years: personal development doesn’t come from self-analysis but from action – doing precedes thinking. You need to recognise your strengths and to see them as a something to develop rather than something to feel comfortable about. Overusing your strengths in the same way all the time is a risk, a vicious circle in which you get increasingly better at doing stuff you are already good at and increasingly addicted to the satisfaction that it brings you. You become less and less likely to try new things – you enter a ‘competency trap’ in which ‘routine crowds out strategy.’ The distinction is between being effective (doing what you do well) and being successful (doing new things and facing new challenges).
If this sounds very theoretical, there are some very concrete points:
It is an observable fact that successful team leaders spend a lot of their time and efforts convincing people outside the team that what their team does is valuable. They work on creating extended networks in the organisation. Making those outside connections (part of what we call ‘outsight’) is one of the most important things a team leader can do. Interestingly, team members recognise this as the behaviour of a successful leader and vote it higher than internal support as a desirable leader trait.
Inexperienced leaders sell the idea, experienced leaders sell themselves. Ibarra’s point here is very clear and practical – people don’t buy the idea, they buy the leader. They recognise that an idea is only likely to become reality if the person who’s selling it exhibits the qualities necessary to make it happen. And those qualities go back to ‘outsight’: connecting and selling the idea across the organisation.
To enlarge the argument a bit, there is an increasing awareness that leaders need a set of ‘non-cognitive’ qualities:
- Emotional intelligence
Very simply. Leading is about doing things through other people, not telling other people to do things. It means creating a context in which things happen. To do that you need to be good at influencing people positively, you need to be able to make people feel good about what they are doing and you need to be able to tell a story about yourself and your team that other people can connect with.
If we try to apply a totally rational model to leadership we are kidding ourselves (think of Daniel Kahneman’s work on ‘rational’ choice). People don’t do things with passion just for their salary. People don’t feel engaged just because they understand the objectives of the organisation. They get passionate and engaged because they feel the objective. Leaders need to get people to feel the objective before translating it into an understanding of the key results. It means keeping emotion in the team positive, because negative emotion narrows focus and stops the agility and broad thinking that people need to reach the big objective. It means moving the stories around the organisation that show people what can be done and which inspire them to do more. By getting those things right, leaders can direct and motivate effort and energy.