Do you think you can lead?

Nov 06 2009 by Cindy Wahler Print This Article

As we review the literature on attributes that are considered germane to successful leaders, there is a clear lack of consensus regarding what makes a great leader. You only need to glance at the dozens of pieces on "leadership" on this web site to read just as many of often conflicting opinions.

Poll senior leaders and you will most certainly receive an array of skills that are considered fundamental. These traits and behaviours include everything from emotional resilience, agility, drive for stakeholder success, conceptual thinking, ability to inspire and motivate, empathy, global mindset, integrity, relationship builder, change agent, business development skills, entrepreneurial risk taking, collaborator, navigator and negotiator of conflict, empowering others, and attracting and developing top talent.

This list of key success factors, although exhaustive is not necessarily all-inclusive. The scope of the role, mandate, industry, competitive landscape, global economy all determine which leadership traits are truly key, non-negotiable and critical to success.

Despite the vast array of recommended attributes and the conclusion that walking on water is the iconic model to aspire to, clearly there are divergent views. I would argue that there is a key requirement regardless of industry sector or the organization's strategic imperatives that must be required of all senior leaders.

In a matrixed system with many accountabilities, both at regional and global levels, influencing skills are paramount. It no longer holds true that "power and influence" are generated by virtue of a reporting relationship. Different stakeholders each come to the table with their own priorities and areas of expertise. Each constituent believes in and is highly committed to their agenda.

Furthermore, all leaders share a competitive edge and a need to win. Carving out a niche or having a pivotal segment of the business is highly desirable. Do leaders naturally "play nice" in the sandbox? Probably not.

If the critical skill set involves the ability to influence, the fact that most leaders are not naturally inclined to do so is not a surprise. Throughout one's career you are rewarded for finishing first. Meet performance objectives, make a key contribution, be the first to the finish line is an "all about me" frame of reference.

Do you know any senior manager who doesn't ask themselves the question, "What do I need to do to become a VP?" The real question should be, "What do I need to do to add greater value to my organization?"

The art of influencing must start with a platform of empathy
How does one impact effectively without formal authority or the advantages of hierarchy? The art of influencing must start with a platform of empathy. It is critical to understand and convey that you have the ability to relate to a colleague's perspective.

Identifying and articulating an initial position sets the dialogue on a path of mutually shared goals. Although there are diverse agendas, a fundamental imperative is to demonstrate that all parties share a basis for decision making that will enhance business objectives.

An 'either / or' proposition sets up a framework of mine and yours. The intent is to look beyond turf to the broader organizational mission. If you truly want to make a difference then contributing to the greater good intuitively must assume that you hold the key to only one component to the solution.

Effective influencing skills requires a sensitivity to understanding why constituents may be resistant to change. The variables underlying resistance might include lack of information, risk aversion, misinformation, threat to one's own area of competence and conflicting loyalties. Identifying the push back allows you to clarify, advance discussion and formulate mutually shared wins.

One of the most critical ingredients to successful influencing is to "get" what truly matters to others. In other words, "What's in it for them? Why should they care?"

This allows you to establish a common perspective. In essence, compromise is crucial for a successful outcome. Relinquishing your original starting point must be part of the equation, demonstrating a shift towards inclusion of another point of view.

There needs to be an expectation and understanding that this is a process over time and not a transactional event. Patience accompanied by rapport-building is essential. Trust between parties is pivotal and underlies all communication. You need to demonstrate how your ideas will dovetail with your colleagues' needs and therefore drive desirable goals.

Collaboration also entails adaptation. An agility to incorporate another perspective is vital. Balance between getting the job done and maintaining good relationships requires leaving your ego at the door.

If your position is "right" and presented as the best and only solution, the dialogue is over before you hit the dance floor. The art of dialogue is about asking smart questions. Facilitative leadership is not about "telling" but rather drawing out concerns in an environment that encourages divergent points of view. Tough conversations are aimed towards a collective working solution.

Building a network to cultivate alliances must be regarded not as an extracurricular activity but germane to mobilizing peers. This network can act to shift an initial perspective and help transition towards a conjoint platform. Effective networks create advocates across the business platform. These advocates are invested in taking ownership and are prepared to be your internal champions.

There is tremendous currency in the role of advocate who is generally respected and seen as a key contributor to the organization. A groundswell is created by investing in colleagues who support and believe in a true partnership. This partnership aims towards the collective win.

We all know challenging conversations that are considered constructive will move the needle in a direction where all constituents feel empowered.

As the dialogue draws to a close ask yourself, "Am I a leader that attracts followers? Am I a leader that people want to stay for?" If you can answer "Yes" to both these questions, likely you have the making of an influential leader.


About The Author

Cindy Wahler
Cindy Wahler

A Psychologist and expert in human behaviour, Dr. Cindy Wahler has extensive and broad based experience in positioning organizations for success, within both the private and public sectors.