In my long career in Human Resources (and now as a coach) I am frequently asked how to climb into the leadership levels of an organization. Often when I inquire about the reasons why someone would like to move into leadership there are very good reasons why they’d like to contribute at the level. However, when I ask people to articulate for me in one paragraph why they feel they would make a good leader I don’t receive anything back from them. In the follow up I’m often told that they don’t really know the answer to that as they were waiting to be given the role before they could say why they’d be good at it (assuming someone one else would see their great qualities and invite them to be one).
Sound familiar? This also takes the form of “I need to have permission to contribute at that level” or “I’d like the promotion first to know what my leadership duties are so I can perform them”. For many of these individuals they are not aware that there are two kinds of leadership; implied leadership and established leadership. Implied leadership also goes by the name of “leadership without authority” and is essentially the ability to positively apply leadership qualities to a working environment without the “consent” or invitation from others to do so. This does not mean you are to establish work priorities or assign work, but does mean you are able to use interpersonal communication effectively to support others in the working environment while also being effective in your role. Any one can do this and you do not need permission.
So how does this work? Basically you are there for the working community within your sphere of influence. A sphere of influence encompasses those individuals (at all levels) with whom you interact over the course of your work. Your support of this working community is present in the way you listen, respond and interact with others. As an example, lets say you listened to a colleague on another team complain about how understaffed they are and that the priorities that have been set are at risk of being missed because of this concern. Later you speak to another colleague in a different part of the organization who is concerned he may be let go because the work in their area has slowed down. You’ve been a great co-worker in listening carefully and applying a measure of empathy to these two individuals. You’d be a great leader by determining who in your sphere of influence would be the best contact to share that there is an opportunity to alleviate a potential concern in two areas of the organization. It’s a risk, but by putting the idea out there (and in the hands of the appropriate people to make decisions) you are contributing to the organizations ability to move forward in a more effective way. Sometimes these ideas are actualized, and sometimes they aren’t. The point is not to have the organization follow your guidance, but to enable the organization to take a look at areas of concerns, or other impediments, enabling them to have deeper conversations and plan for changes that make sense.
This is but one example of implied leadership at work. Cast your mind back and think of the times when you had an opportunity to bring something forward with the potential to enable something more for your team or your origination. Did you do it and if not, why not? If you were waiting for permission then you’ve failed a key leadership trial. It is often said that leaders are born, the implication of this being that you either have leadership skills or you don’t. What you chose to do with the unique perspective you have is where you have an opportunity to be a leader. There is also a palatable difference between management and leadership. Management skills can be taught; there are whole schools and programs dedicated to teaching us how to effectively manage specific resources, time, etc. However, leadership is separate from management, a key difference being you do need authorization to effectively exercise management – management is role based where as leadership is behavior based. We are all in charge of our behaviours - roles (on the other hand) are in the realm of the organization to allocate.
Exercising implied leadership is a great opportunity to hone leadership skills, so that when you are in a position of established or expressed leadership you already have the behavioural parts of the role figured out. Successful leaders can articulate and lead others into something that is bigger then themselves by sharing a well thought-out vision. They are those people who are able to foster and reinforce fair and ethical practices in their organizations that lead to an organizational culture that supports positive work experiences. Successful leaders are also those who lead by example and lend their strong voice when it is important to do so (even if it is not comfortable for them to do). Do you need to be in management to accomplish these things? No, you don’t – it may help to get you an audience, but even established managers and leaders have to continually earn their audience’s respect and the successful ones do so by exercising leadership. How will you exercise your leadership skills?
Defining Successful Leadership
The term “successful leader” can be confusing as there isn’t one defined way to view success; it’s a relative term and each person has their own definition. In broad strokes there are some tenants of success that we can link to leadership; in today’s blog we’ll explore these tenants, identifying them to understand how present they are in your career.
When we think of success it is often linked to a leaders’ prominence. How often are they quoted in the media? Is she/he considered an authority on something? How many people know who he/she is? In a public sense this can be one way to identify a business or thought leader, but it also defines a range of other leaders we often “see” (political leaders, etc.). These leaders may not espouse all the attributes we’d like to build in ourselves as leaders. While identifiable capabilities, competence and a level of subject matter expertise is a component of leadership, these things do not ensure a leader is someone whom you’d like to work with or for. In my coaching practice I work with many professionals who struggle against societies acceptance of a well-spoken leader as being knowledgeable or an authority, when what they exercise is confidence and the ability to speak publicly in a competent way (but are not necessarily in possession of all the best ideas or expertise). Does successful leadership reside in your ability to capture an audience? Yes, there is leadership currency in that. Do you have to be the loudest voice in the room to capture an audience? No you don’t. What you do have to be is aware and committed to your end goal, and understand through that commitment that it will be necessary to share with others your expertise, vision or plan. If you are looking for an example Rosa Parks comes to mind; she was not a public speaker, in fact history has documented her as an introvert. However, she chose to exercise her voice in an authentic way when it mattered and in doing so gave a voice to millions of others.
This brings us to another very important aspect of leadership. Believing in something that is bigger then yourself and helping others to believe in it too. Here as well there are variances; what one person believes in may be disagreeable to another so there needs to be a base-line understanding on what will be of importance to others. When Steve Jobs set out to build a computer it was not because the world didn’t have computers, he didn’t like the computers on offer. He had a vision for how computers could be constructed to be more affordable and usable by the average person. This was important to him, and in the end the world followed Steve Jobs for his bravery (or audacity, however you choose to look at it) to “put a dent in the universe”. Here we find an individual who believed in something that we could not imagine our world without today (smart phones, tablets, etc.). If these technologies disappeared without warning there would be potential for a negative global economic impact. However, had the Apple-based technologies not been invented it the first place it is highly likely humanity would have continued along just fine. There wasn’t the “moral imperative” in creating personal productivity products that we see in the Rosa Parks example, and yet what is as present in the Steve Jobs example (compared to Rosa Parks) is belief and the ability to enable others to believe in a vision that has (as it turned out) changed much in our society today. By the way, Jobs is another leader history has tagged as an introvert.
Success has also been defined in terms of earning potential (or revenue potential for an organization). This is one we hear a lot about in the media and is the focus of much attention. It is what “targets and margins” are made of and is a quantifiable “number” that is easy to articulate (if not to achieve). Many of us have personal goals in this area, whether it is to buy a new car, earn a six-figure salary or retire well it’s something that on a basic level most people understand. However, does being rich (or running a company in a way that makes it rich) mean you are successful? We’ve all seen evidence to the contrary (lottery winners are an example – being rich doesn’t automatically equate to life-long happiness). When I work with clients who are early in their careers many are shocked to discover that just because a company is successful (fiscally solvent, dependable for long-term employment, etc.) doesn’t mean it will offer a positive work experience. Many of us make this mistake, assuming that if a company is “well run” it must then also treat it’s workforce well. Successful leaders are those who can ensure that, for the majority of employees, both are present; a workplace that offers a positive work experience within a company that achieves a good measure of financial success. There are a great many studies devoted to the topic of healthy workplace practices equating to higher productivity from staff, which is a component of successful companies; this is no surprise. What is harder to articulate, drive and imbue in company culture are strong leadership practices that enable a positive working environment through ethics. Leaders who champion fair and ethical practices are present in many of our workplaces, but if their organization doesn’t support these practices (bottom up and top down), then the workforce as a whole will not consistently have those positive workplace experiences that drive employees to go the extra mile. We’ve seen examples of what can happen when the balance between ethics and the drive to succeed financially is not present; Enron and other examples are far too prevalent but they offer emerging and current leaders the opportunity to understand why the balance is important and how dependent their workforces (and society) are on sound operating practices.
In looking at the broad tenants of successful leaders we can see that they are the individuals who believe in a vision and are able to articulate it in a meaningful way enabling others to contribute. Successful leaders are able to foster and reinforce fair and ethical practices in their organizations that lead to an organizational culture that supports positive work experiences. Successful leaders are those who lead by example and lend their strong voice when it is important to do so (even if it is not comfortable for them to do). Leadership is always a risk; whether you are in a leadership role within an organization or practicing leadership without the title as a way to support others in your workplace and community it requires you to “put yourself out there”. Another important aspect of successful leaders is that they are not perfect, but they are committed to the creation of something that is bigger then themselves, following an iterative process that makes them more capable to achieve it over time.
Leadership and Innovation
Innovation is a component of both successful leadership and emotional intelligence. In this week’s blog we’ll explore the different components that foster innovative leadership and the value they have to offer anyone practicing leadership.
Successful leaders realize something important; they don’t know it all. This self-awareness means a successful leader is open to not only hearing from other people (who may have a different point of view or opinions), but seeking them out and listening – there is an element of flexibility here. This practice provides valuable insights and brings forward new and interesting ideas, laying the foundation for valuable products and services (or internal processes that save money, etc.). Even if an idea isn’t a fit today, in soliciting ideas in a tangible way they become available for others to think about, or to build on, and one of those ideas may possibly supply the next “big thing” for your organization. You never know where ideas will go, but if they are silenced within your organization they cannot contribute, or worse, they may walk over to your competition (who is listening). One of the best things about ideas is that they are free – fostering innovative thinking and idea generation does not have an immediate cost attached to it, so why wouldn’t you want to encourage your employees to do this?
You also need a measure of optimism to foster a contributive level of innovation. If the glass is always half-empty (even if the perception is that management sees the glass as half-empty) then nothing gets off the ground. We know what this sounds like in a workplace “that is too complex…we’d have to change X and Y…we don’t have the funding in the current budget…”. As a leader, checking in to see if this is this present in your organization is an important part of supporting innovation. How open-minded are you? Your leadership team? Your employees? While optimism is a great thing to have as a leader (and as an individual), it also needs to be present in workplace culture. Successful leaders foster this level of optimism within their organizations because optimistic companies succeed. Optimism is as simple as providing enough interest in the ideas brought forward to ask an employee (or group of employees) to elaborate on it, so there is a “check” in their thinking and also the possibility of a tangible well-thought out idea at the end. You probably don’t have room in your current budget to develop it in its unproven, infantile state. Asking someone to put effort into articulating it from a business perspective not only builds employee capabilities but provides more data to prove a business case for future funding (or helping your employee to see for themselves what a well thought out idea looks like – there is a learning curve providing great development opportunities). Apply this to your own idea generation as well.
Even when you are listening to great ideas/opinions/approaches they only breathe life when implemented and that takes further innovation and problem solving skills. Being realistic in what it takes to implement new ideas is valuable; the concept of “managed risk” is key. Beyond ensuring you are being realistic about the activities you pursue is also being mindful about what you learn along the way. Many of us have worked in organizations that decided to pursue innovation, sometimes in a very measurable way, but if an initiative didn’t produce the intended result the whole thing got buried…deep. Whatever lessons were learned along the way inclined towards “we won’t do that again” rather than looking at it objectively – failure teaches us more then success. What have your company’s failures brought to the table? If you look closely you’ll see those lessons encoded in your organizational DNA. Managed risk doesn’t mean failure proof, nor should it. It means as long as your organization is learning something while being mindful of the resources going into a project, it is probably worth considering.
Managed risk is a practice that requires a measure of independence on the part of the people pursuing it and the need to be assertive in framing (and explaining) the benefits of the pursuit. In today’s markets margin is king. Even companies in start-up mode need to show they can reach profitability quickly; more then ever projects are scrutinized and measured. As a leader you need to go out on a limb, and listen carefully. When you have a real champion in your organization for something (in particular an innovative idea) she/he will be assertive, and you will also need to be assertive in your support of the initiative, especially in the face of doubters and naysayers. When you believe something is worth the risk, others will buy in.
Also present in innovation is a measure of self-actualization - the pinnacle of achievement for anyone in life (according to Maslow); seeing a successful initiative through from incubation to maturity and knowing it was your insight and support that lead to it is incredibly rewarding. If along the way there were a few failures and hiccups then they were the supporting factors that contributed to projects that make it. Not every leader has what it takes to foster and support innovation, but this is present in the leadership capabilities of those leaders we would say are “successful”. What innovative ideas are you going to foster today?