A baker’s dozen of valid and practical leadership actions: part 1, items 1 to 7

Following my last article about Northern Power Women’s excellent report, “Levelling Up by Powering On”, see https://www.tsp-uk.co.uk/general-leadership/northern-power-women-levelling-up-by-powering-on/, here is the first half of my baker’s dozen of foundational principles that I continuously rely on in my work with leaders across a broad demographic spectrum. 

Reflecting the Anderson, Herriot model shown at the end of my previous essay, these are all have roots in robust research and practical.  They’re not necessarily easy, they demand diligent endeavour to learn, to understand, and to practise them. Thereafter, continual coaching is vital to maintain competence.  Combined, rather than any one in isolation, these faculties represent the hallmarks of great leadership. 

In contemplating whose bottoms occupy the seats at the top table, remember each of those bottoms comes with a free brain.  If that organ commits its host to understand and practise these principles, a humane, compassionate, and purposeful style of leadership will emerge.  This imbues organisations, large and small, for and not for profit, with a fit and healthy climate.  Employee engagement and well-being will rise, the customer and citizen experience will improve, the environment will be protected. 

We won’t just level up, we’ll spring forward into a new place.

What do leaders really do? 

John Kotter’s seminal paper under this title was published in 1990 and built on one entitled “Managers and Leaders, Are they Different?” By Abraham Zaleznik. 

Leaders conceive a new future, effectively sell their ideas to others, and gather the requisite resources – people, finance, physical and technological resource – to realise their vision.  They collaborate, they care, they are firm yet fair.  They invest their time in others’ development. 

Or, did John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president during the 1820s already have the concept of leadership nailed down, when stating, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Leadership and educational qualifications

Over the years, leadership is made out to be a “dark art”, something oblique and difficult. To be effective demands educational qualifications.  Yet it is behaviour far more so than education that differentiates leadership performance.  Mastering a relatively small group of behavioural competences demands continuous practice more so than schooling.  From my own experience, gathering qualifications was a salve to my own self- perception of having a “dull” brand, i.e., not going to university, serving three decades in one organisation. This tells little of my story, however.  I have my thumbprints on game-changing initiatives.  Elon Musk criticises the number of MBAs in the C-suite.  The tendrils of McKinsey run deep as well; they bind me as I quote their work. 

While my learning experiences gave me “bullets of knowledge” to fire, it has been the cultivation of my behavioural competences that has improved my aim.  And a leader needs to be both reliable and valid.

Figure (1)

I like this simple diagram conceived within Glowinkowski International, a consultancy with which I have held a long association.  It depicts the behavioural essence of leadership, one that changes in complexion due to the swirling dynamics of the external world. 

Figure (2)

Occasionally, an organisation will emerge or do something that impacts that external world rather than be affected by it.  For instance, the launch of the world’s first debit card in 1987 by Barclays Bank (I was there, it was very exciting!). 

The FANGAM group of technology companies are other more contemporary examples.

Leaders create new leaders

The American political activist Ralph Nader said, “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”  Peter Drucker spoke about leaders “helping others break through their limits in order to attain higher achievement.  Growing people, nurturing talent, incubating innovation and creativity.”  Consider Arie de Geus who proposed leaders should invest 20% of their time developing the talent and capability of their people. 

Consider too this article from McKinsey about US Bank’s approach to learning, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-accelerate/our-insights/an-environment-where-everybody-can-thrive-a-conversation-with-us-banks-tim-welsh?cid=other-eml-alt-mcq-mck&hdpid=c84a7023-d99d-477d-8c63-097c10638d1c&hctky=3067237&hlkid=7bc830874ee44f249a303543e0c29dc5.  I’m not sure there is anything especially new in this – along with Northern Power Women colleagues, we did much of this at Barclays Bank in Liverpool in the 1990s. 

As ever, there are upsides and downsides to honing this focus on employees’ growth and development.  Some 25 years ago, I am reliably informed that the CEO of a major UK business expected his leaders to devote 12% of their time to developing new leaders.  They did but, despite rapid growth in the business, there were insufficient roles to accommodate this new cadre of talent (as the business grew, it was structurally delayered).  They left.  A capability gap was created, which was masked until an accounting scandal broke. 

Personality and behaviour are not the same thing.   

The motto “know thyself” is one of the maxims inscribed on the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi.  It remains as apt today as thousands of years’ ago.

Kurt Lewin’s “environment formula” states behaviour to be a function of personality and situation, or B = f (B + S).  This too remains as valid now as when conceived 70+ years ago.  What do you know about your personality and, please, spare me the horoscope-like models of Myers-Briggs or ones that anthropomorphise human traits to animals?  How does your personality relate to the behaviours you deliver in the different situations you meet?  Where can you be yourself, where do you need to “act out of character”? 

I mentioned the Big 5 Trait Theory in my earlier blog.  I am a big fan.  It was conceived in the 1980s and still drives corporate initiatives, e.g., at AirBnB to assess trustworthiness of renters.  In academic research[1], a recent study correlates the music you listen to and your traits or predispositions.  It pleases me to read that listening to the blues indicates emotional stability, while punk indicates disagreeability.  Reverting to the Anderson, Herriot model, yes, I know this is populist, borderline puerility, but in these dark days, it made me smile! 

The Big 5 are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN – or CANOE, out of which, without a paddle, and up the proverbial creek as we are!).  My interpretation of Carol Dweck’s work on mindset is that it is a “deep drill” into Openness and its inter-relationship with the other traits, e.g., their reaction to criticism lies in part in Agreeableness and in Neuroticism. 

Behaviour is acting

The best leaders are those who can smell the mood of a room and adjust their behavioural demeanour deftly and dextrously so they “act” appropriately.  They are not one-trick ponies, they do not possess the arrogance of What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG).  Behaviour is acting – the word “actor” litters the pyschological literature.

As you learn to act more competently, so you become more authentic – your performance is believable.  In being believable, hopefully the spectre of “imposter syndrome” can be quelled.  You sense you belong on your chosen stage and command a positive presence. One that doesn’t dominate or belittle but encourages, stimulates, challenges, and possibly provokes. 

While one can be behaviourally authentic, i.e., a credible actor, there is also the need to consider whether you are being true to your values.  If you are not, that is surely the apex of being inauthentic – you are a hypocrite.  Furthermore, not all values are virtuous.  Authentically holding to your unvirtuous values is likely to see you behave unpleasantly, e.g., bullying.  It is the pathway to sociopathy.

Behaviours make you excel (or maybe they don’t). 

The entry ticket to any role, let alone a leadership one, is possessing the requisite skills, knowledge, and experience.  Behaviours ultimately distinguish performance.  This can be negatively so as depicted wonderfully by Mitchell and Webb, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THNPmhBl-8I.   

Figure (3)

Becoming consciously competent across the entirety of the four clusters of behaviours shown in Figure 2 is a lifetime’s work.  Malcolm Gladwell speaks of it taking 10,000 hours to master any capability.  Although there is a growing challenge that this is not the case, I continue to believe it is apposite to leadership development. This is because leadership is a complex rather than complicated issue.  

A jumbo jet is complicated – you can dismantle the plane down to its component parts.  People, however, are complex by virtue of their traits, motives and values, or their heart, mind, and soul.  You cannot really disassemble them, just as you cannot the ingredients of mayonnaise once you blend them together. 

Mastering behavioural competency requires oodles of self-motivation.  Assessing mastery demands far more qualitative and observational measurement than completion of quantitative questionnaires.  The latter can measure behaviour at a broad level – if you wish the molecular one rather than the elemental one.  Striving for “Unconscious Competence” often leads to blasé behaviour through which mistakes arise and it is no longer apparent why they have.  Another consequence is risk management recives insufficient attention, a complacent sense of immunity to risk arises – pandemics included!  In such instances, leaders need people around them who are not afraid of giving them a jolt to wake them from their sleepwalking. 

In building a competency framework, do not overload it with too many behaviours.  People cannot get their heads around a framework comprising 60-odd behaviours. Across the four clusters shown in the diagram at Figure 2, twenty is a comprehendible number.

Competences are elemental

In defining competences, do not regard “Change Management” or “Project Management” as individual behaviours.  They are managerial processes that demand delivery of a range of behaviours, i.e., a composite array.  Consider another much-vaunted capability, Emotional Intelligence[2].  This comprises three behaviours:

  • Knowing yourself and being able to read other people (Interpersonal Awareness)
  • Being able to adjust your behaviour to optimise your contribution to the situation you are in (Concern for Impact),
  • Speaking one’s mind even though this may get you into hot water.

Leaders who coach effectively possess this quality, which NPW’s report does not explicitly mention.  They mean what they say and say what they mean.  As part of their EQ, great leaders, coaches, and mentors adopt a precision in their use of language.  They are not verbose; nor do they boil every utterance down to a vacuous soundbite.  They rarely shout and bawl, they have no need to resort to profanity (as I will shortly do – sorry).  They do not communicate with people as if they are mushrooms, i.e., cover them in sh*t and leave them in the dark.  That approach certainly does not build Clarity within Climate, see point 6.

As with Sanna Marin, Finland’s PM, they answer any question posed to them in a considered, considerate, complete, and honest manner.  In conveying a difficult message, neither do they skirt the issue or use words as bludgeons.  Alan Sugar poking out his finger and gleefully saying, “You’re fired!” is (lousy) entertainment not an example of coaching best practice. 

EQ savvy leaders do not deliberately seek to make enemies because they realise that if you stand on people as you are in the ascendancy, they may not catch you should you slip or fall.  Great leaders recognise that as they reach up to grasp the next rung of the ladder, at the same time they must reach down and help those climbing behind them. 

More COMpassion, less passion

The NPW report includes the phrase “cracking on”.  Some caution is necessary.  Dithering, procrastination, and prevarication are as harmful to organisational performance as recklessness and impetuosity, which often arises from acting with undue passion.  Unlike Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote in the famous Hanna Barbera cartoons, when our passionate impetuosity gets the better of us and we hurtle off a cliff, we are unable to turn around in mid-air and get back to solid ground.  Some falls are survivable, many are not. 

Consider this model from Nitesh Gor’s “Dharma of Capitalism”. 

Figure (4)

Can the entire NPW population commit to act far more in the “mode of goodness” than in the “mode of passion”.  Where passion effervesces to the surface of behavioural delivery, it must display its positive face not its Janus-esque dark masks of aggressive control and opportunism.  When I have criticised the use of the word passion before, I have received many pushbacks.  However, I stand firm that it is dangerous word. 

I prefer the idea of courage.  This word de-risks the opportunity for foolhardiness to arise.  I’m not supporting analysis by paralysis but “look before you leap” remains wise counsel. 

Focusing on developing culture is not an end, it is a means to an end. 

In a Henley Management School report issued in 2017, Professor Barbara Kellerman of Harvard University says, “The leadership industry has not in any major, meaningful, measurable way improved the human condition.”  For the last 30 to 40 years, too much attention has been paid to the concept of organisational climate, it has been concentrated on culture. Considering them as mutually exclusive is a mistake. Pulling on the different cultural levers will affect climate in different ways, not always beneficially.

More recently, McKinsey issued a report entitled “Organising for the future: Nine keys to becoming a future-ready company”.  One of the keys is “Use culture as your secret sauce”.  Culture and climate are different, the former is causal to the latter. 

The original definitions tell us all we need to know; culture is defined as, “How we DO things here”, climate was defined as, “How it FEELS to work here”.  Culture, while ideally values driven but often is not, more concerns procedure, policy, protocols, as well as behavioural practice.  It is not entirely people centric and, indeed, when you consider a great deal of organisational change, it overlooks the human dimension.  McKinsey also claims, perhaps shooting itself in both feet given the amount of major organisational change it facilitates, that 70% of change fails to deliver projected benefits. 

Climate is entirely person centric because it addresses human sensory perception, e.g. do employees feel they have clarity about their firm’s purpose and intent, do they feel included, do they feel positive about change?  Some naysayers dismiss the concept of climate as endorsing the creation of a laissez-faire holiday camp work environment – it is not!  A healthy climate embraces purpose and objectivity; it is not an organisational bus on which passengers can snooze – do not tolerate ambivalence .  Tough love is the haemoglobin of climate. 

Effective leaders nurture and sustain a healthy climate, they recognise it is an outcome of the organisation’s culture that comprises leadership behaviour, organisational structure, process management and demonstration of publicised values.  Yet too many organisations have palpable cultures and toxic climates.  Usually, this is due to crass leadership behaviours being delivered and tolerated.  The best leaders do not build an autocracy in which they expect workers to be obedient, subordinate, and compliant – fealty and loyalty are entirely different. 

Healthy climates arise from leaders practising “servant-leadership”, i.e., they serve their people not themselves – see Robert Greenleaf’s exemplary work on this subject. 

At a holistic level, Gallup report that worldwide 13% of employees are engaged in their work, while YouGov reports that 37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless.  This suggests organisational climates are toxic, although the cultures may be palpable.  As Brad Pitt says in Fight Club, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.” 

Talk with not talk to your employees

Conversation

Two key dimensions of climate are Clarity and Involvement.  The former arises through leaders involving their employees in inclusive, engaging, attentive conversations.  Most people are familiar with the story of JFK visiting NASA and speaking to a man sweeping the floor.  The NASA “staffer” understood how his humble role contributed to realising the purpose of, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”  The question of avoiding harm infused every moment of effort to bring back the Apollo 13 astronauts, “We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.” said Gene Krantz (or at least he did in the movie).  

Less well known is the story of Enid the cleaner at Barclays’ Liverpool call centre in the 1990s.  Of her humble role she told me, “You want your people to provide exceptional service to your customers.  Why should they if they do not feel loved and cared for.  That is where I come in, I ensure they have the cleanest, tidiest toilets in Liverpool.” She also castigated men’s aim, but that is Liverpool humour for you. 

How do you converse with your employees?  How often?  About what?  I wish I had the capacity to remember names and family details as some remarkable leaders do.  When leaders display this authentic interest in their people, they don’t need to squander money on Tony Robbins to cajole them to walk over hot coals – they will do so willingly because they know their leader has their welfare and well-being front of mind. 

In a recent column in The Times, the gifted writer Rachel Sylvester contrasts the approach of Priti Patel and my constituency MP, Therese Coffey, in the way they run their respective departments, and which one has staff willingly giving discretionary effort. 

In this era of working from home, the wisest guidance I have heard in the past few months is from a leader who spoke about “checking in” with their team members, rather than “checking up”.  This second expression indicates a lack of trust, increasingly exacerbated by usage of tracking software on laptops.  The emphasis appears to be on “catching people doing something wrong”.  Instead, let’s find every opportunity to celebrate things being done right and well?

General Patton remarked, “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”

Meetings

A constant stream of meetings is not the answer either.  Quite rightly many regard them as a modern curse, perhaps even more so now they occur on Skype, Zoom, or Teams.  It is so easy to fill a day with back-to-back meetings.  Unlike in the physical world, you don’t even move from one meeting room to another.  I question the value-add of even the third immediately consecutive meeting, let alone the tenth.  Seven-hour long team meetings are also ineffective.  A report from BUPA highlighted the risk of acquiring a DVT from sitting motionless in a series of virtual meetings or a prolonged one, see https://www.bupa.co.uk/newsroom/ourviews/dvt-lockdown.  A report on BBC News web-site highlighted risks to eyesight from peering at screens continuously, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-55620100https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-55620100.  It suggested the 20:20:20 rule, every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. 

My friend, Gary Winter, https://www.linkedin.com/in/garywinter/, was involved in the famous turnround of Asda in the 1990s.  Meetings were never more than an hour long and often conducted standing up. 

Why are meetings so drab and boring and often do not see a decision made?  People arrive unprepared.  Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, now has meetings include reading time so, literally, he can see everyone is on the same page.  This is somewhat controlling behaviour but, evidently, it conveys the message across about “being prepared”.  Clearly, the Scouts and Guides were ahead of their time. 

Why is a meeting being convened?  Is it to make a decision or merely to share information? Be clear about its purpose.  Who really needs to attend – how many meetings become unwieldy because of FOMO?  How can meetings become development experiences through a leader delegating participation to a team member?  They must transfer their authority to them and ensure they are not admitting “Daniel into the lion’s den”.   


[1] Ian Anderson, Santiago Gil, Clay Gibson, Scott Wolf, Will Shapiro, Oguz Semerci, and David M. Greenberg. “Just the Way You Are”: Linking Music Listening on Spotify and Personality. Social Psychological and Personality Science, XX (X), Sage Publications, accessed via Google Scholar, 12/01/2021

[2] Richard Boyatzis, who wrote The Competent Manager (which is as dry as sand), now writes with Daniel Goleman, the person who conceived Emotional Intelligence. 

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