Four steps to leadership heaven

Jun 21 2005 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Good leadership is never simple, but according to the experts, managers who want to be better leaders need to develop four fundamental abilities.

These are: focusing on the process as much as the person; getting to grips with the dynamic nature of your organisation; repeatedly striving for coherence; and achieving clarity through conversation.

For many organisations, leadership is still a bit of a grey area – how do you define it, where do you find it, how do you develop it, where do you apply it, how much of it is needed and when should you change it?

To try to help employers improve in this area, two years ago organisation behaviour change consultants, ER Consultants, sponsored a PhD in leadership at the University of Cambridge to examine what makes leaders tick.

Based on this research by Sonia Bicknell, Zoe O'Connor and her colleagues at ER Consultants have developed a set of guiding "leadership principles" to help organisations distil what leadership means to them, and whether they are doing the right thing when it comes to recruiting, grooming, motivating and retaining leaders.

Effective leadership is a process that continuously seeks to develop a shared sense of coherence so that we pull in the same direction

The first principle, argues Bicknell, is that leadership needs to be a process, not just focused on one person.

"There are many levers and enablers in organisations that, if galvanised, help develop direction and push or pull people forward," O'Connor suggests.

"Effective leadership is a process that continuously seeks to develop a shared sense of coherence so that we pull in the same direction.

"While some individuals in leadership positions may be charismatic and inspiring, the rest of us have to optimise the range of levers and enablers at our disposal. High-profile individuals are not simply charismatic; they make full use of the leadership process," she adds.

Leaders and their organisations need to be locked together "in a dynamic dance", Bicknell continues.

It is not a simply case of having once had a good organisation behind you, she stresses, you need actively to continue to create that good organisation, by understanding the dynamic nature of the situation within which it exists.

"Unless we take into account the organisation's history, current reality and future options, we don't know where and how to pitch our leadership capability," explains O'Connor.

Alongside this, leaders need to be keenly aware of their own history, preferences and values, currentmodus operandi and what they aspire to.

If they fail to take account of this, they may end up in leadership positions where neither they nor the health of the organisation can flourish.

A leader has three primary roles, Bicknell suggests: interpreter, moderator and constructor in a changing environment.

"To be able to create coherence within ambiguity and uncertainty, the leadership task is to tap into sufficient sources so that a helpful picture can be drawn and to generate sufficient interest and belief in that picture to stimulate aligned movement," she argues.

What this means in reality is having an ability to interpret data, then moderate that interpretation depending on whether more or less radical change is wanted and then, finally, to construct a version that best serves the organisation.

"The trouble is that the scenes keep shifting and today's coherence may be tomorrow's nonsense, so the job never stops," argues O'Connor.

In this context, "coherence" as a notion is an ever-moving target, but one upon which a leader's alignment with his or her organisation depends.

In an ever more complex business world, the capacity of anyone to keep track of all the potential changes affecting their organisation is severely stretched.

This therefore pushes leadership into a different domain, suggests Bicknell. Leadership requires an ongoing, purposeful dialogue to ensure that sense is made of the common value, directions and goals of the organisation.

"The dialogue is more like co-creation, where the act of involving others to make sense of the world at the same time persuades all parties of the coherence that is drawn," O'Connor explains.

"By taking a more collective approach to creating sense we are likely to develop a more substantial 'sense-scape' that will include not only economic, social and commercial data, for instance, but personal and emotional data too," she adds.

Finally, leaders need to make sure they are using language to make and give sense, argues Bicknell.

"It sounds obvious, but it is a factor that may be underplayed. Too often we have organisations and leaders operating at one or other end of the extremes; very little that is articulated in a visible, accessible way, or, reams of 'papers' that overwhelm our capacity to make sense of them," O'Connor explains.

"Simply being more thoughtful with our use of language and being more conscious of what meaning we wish to convey, could result in more effective leadership," she concludes.