The title of this piece may sound familiar, not that you’ve seen it before but certainly you’ve seen countless others sounding a similar refrain, ‘Eureka! We’ve found the key to leadership!” Except we haven’t and we likely won’t given the place we look from as we continue to ponder the question of how to produce leaders, in business or any other arena.
The article, from which the title quote was clipped, ‘Decoding Leadership: What really matters’ appeared in the January issue of McKinsey Quarterly, a publication I always look forward to reviewing. Yet, when another piece purporting to have found a chunk of the leadership puzzle appears I am tempted to skip its content lest I have another of those “Charley Brown, Lucy and the football” moments I have so often experienced when exploring this subject. This time I thought, “Oh go ahead, this one might be different.” It isn’t, much to my chagrin I found myself in the midst of more of the same, “leadership as reported by a spectator to an event.”
It isn’t that I find fault with the authors, Claudio Feser, Fernanda Mayol, and Ramesh Srinivasan. I think their intentions are honorable and they intended to add to an already enormous body of information (491,000,000 references on Google alone). In fact I believe their premise was an attempt to simplify our understanding of leadership with their assertion that four types of leadership behavior …
- Solving problems effectively
- Operating with a Strong Results Orientation
- Seeking Different Perspectives
- Supporting others
… account for 89% of leadership effectiveness.
Unfortunately the authors leave us with the imperfect admonition to “encourage” these types of behaviors in our leadership development investments. Also unfortunately the authors offer, “We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant.” To me this is on par with closing their article with “Hey, were just sayin!”
Am I being too snarky here? I do not mean to be but what I do intend is to make an attempt to end the reliance on the practice of claiming to understand the game on the field by describing it from the stands in the stadium, which is how I interpret the use of surveys to study leadership.
As it stands now all that we seem to understand about leadership comes for a subjective point of view, i.e., what constitutes leadership is in the eye of the beholder and therefore always after the fact. What about when I seize an opportunity, act decisively and fail? How often is that characterized as “careless” or “reckless” by those beholding my actions? Frequently is my guess.
So then what is there to do? Before you begin to wonder if I am going to present you with a football a la Lucy let me make it clear that I do not know anything for certain. What I do have is a question from a coaches’ perspective. How can we get those we wish to lead to see through the eyes of leadership before the fact? That would be the ticket, would it not?
If you’ve read any of the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey on their theory of Immunity to Change, including possibly their book by the same name, you’ll recall that their premise is that behavioral change is actually constrained by competing commitments, wired in messages that direct action along certain courses. In the face of this wiring encouragement to act differently is doomed to fail because the internal dialogue is set to automatically produce behavior that has a track record of success, in the eyes of the actor at least. Heart patients returning to smoking after bypass surgery is one graphic example of the phenomenon. As a coach I have used techniques developed by this pair of researchers with more than a little success. They produce the equivalent of getting a subject to move around inside the house of their perspective to see the world outside through a different window. The outcome of the process, different perspectives allow more readily for different actions.
My thought on leadership at this point would be to return to the four behaviors distinguished in the subject article and work with potential leaders to see of they can discover through reflection why they are not acting in these ways. What blocks their vision if you will? Actually the potential leader probably needs to first create a value proposition for themselves in which acting in these manners lead to outcomes otherwise unattainable.
Short of this I am afraid we may have to resort to leaders wearing helmets with cameras attached. We’ll follow them about as they go through a day and shout instructions through a headset as we see opportunities to act that they are missing.
At the very least we could stop surveying the spectators in an effort to understand what it is like to be on the field of play.