The assumption that so-called "tough" leaders with a controlling and target-driven approach do better during tough economic times is simply not true, according to new research carried out in the UK. Instead, leaders who are people- and relationship centric are far more likely to display outstanding performance.
A two-year study by workplace think-tank the Work Foundation suggests that the most effective leaders think and act systemically, seeing the whole picture rather than compartmentalising. They see people as the sole route to performance and are deeply people and relationship centred rather than just people oriented.
Moreover, they are self-confident without being arrogant - they are aware of their strengths and their position of influence, yet use these for the benefit of their organisation and its people.
The study, based on over 250 in-depth qualitative interviews, in six high-profile UK organisations (BAE Systems, EDF Energy, Guardian Media Group, Serco, Tesco and Unilever), examined the behavioural differences between leaders who were perceived by their direct reports and managers as merely "good" and those who were seen as being "outstanding".
Lead author Penny Tamkin said that the research showed that leaders who are fixated on numbers and targets need to change their mindsets.
"Outstanding leaders focus on people, attitudes and engagement, co-creating vision and strategy. Instead of one-to-one meetings centred on tasks, they seek to understand people and their motives," she explained.
"Instead of developing others through training and advice, they do this through challenge and support. They manage performance holistically, attending to the mood and behaviour of their people as well as organisational objectives. And instead of seeing people as one of many priorities, they put the emphasis on people issues first."
In other words, leaders who realise that only if they engage their people will they achieve great performance – acting as enablers, stretching and championing others and giving them the support they need to excel – are more effective.
"An approach which connects leaders to people and people to purpose defines outstanding leadership. Leadership that focuses on mutuality and respect is not only good for people but good for organisations too," Tamkin added.