Why Leadership is the Key Skill When You Want to Make Big Change.
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”
Alexander the Great
When we think of leadership there can be a tendency to associate it with the lionhearted qualities implied by Alexander the Great’s quote above.
But history has shown that there is no one right way to lead and that for every swashbuckling, charismatic hero there has been a quiet unassuming modest person of indomitable spirit who has achieved amazing things.
In this list compiled by MSN, you can see 50 of history’s most influential leaders. Some were the harbingers of great human progress and growth, some brought death, destruction and disease on a global scale.
Because leadership, like many things in life, is neither a good or bad thing of its own right.
It is a complex tool, consisting of a broad range of skills that enables those who have mastered the skills to achieve results far beyond anything they could hope to achieve on their own.
Are Leaders Born or can they be created?
This is still a widely debated subject. With some advocating that leadership is a God-given talent with which some people are blessed and others not1Are leaders born or made?, Di Giulio, Justin & Giulio, Di. 2014. .
But the large majority now believe leadership is a set of learnable skills which, when practised and developed, will lead to enhanced performance in an organisational setting.
Testimony to this is the huge number of leadership programs developed by universities, business schools, training organisations and businesses themselves; and the large sums of money invested by organisations to develop their leadership resources.
Notwithstanding all of the above, there are still some truisms when it comes to leadership.
People, with an innate talent for leadership, can find it easier to assume highly influential leadership roles but it is not the only factor.
Inevitably leadership positions come with responsibilities and many with natural leadership skills do not wish to take on the mantle of responsibility that comes with the role.
One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is that many people are promoted to positions of leadership which their natural skills cannot support. And they resort to leadership traits which are now regarded as inappropriate and divisive.
They rule through their authority, demanding compliance and motivating by fear.
I have seen this pattern time and time again. It happens when people in leadership positions come under pressure to deliver results but lack the leadership skills to gain the support of the people they need to help them deliver those results.
They fall into the leadership trap so eloquently described by Ronald Reagan when he was US President.
When you can’t make them see the light, make them feel the heat.
This can be particularly detrimental when you are leading big change projects and you want leadership for change to be your tool to drive impact.
To create change you have to get people to do different things and to do the things with which they are familiar in different ways.
How do you get people to act differently?
The management guru Peter Senge is the author of the Fifth Discipline, The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. His theories about learning and leadership now stand alongside The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, as the most influential in modern management thinking.
One of Senge’s great contributions was his understanding of the nature of change and why people react differently when faced with significant change.
He recognised that people do not resist change, they resist being changed. This opens the window of understanding when it comes to developing one’s leadership for change skills.
The tactics of the beleaguered leader who resorts to command and control techniques generate within the people she seeks to influence, the very resistance to change that she wants to avoid.
By demanding change and backing this up through her authority she creates the feeling that change is a consequence of her “brilliance”.
By wanting to be seen as the architect of change she robs her team of the ability to feel in control of the change process and from that approach it becomes clear to her team that she is trying to change them.
It is in the desire to be seen as the hero and the agent of change that the resistance to the change she wants to avoid sets in.
What is Leadership?
This leads us to think about the act of leadership and what it really is.
Defining leadership is not an easy task. There are literally thousands of leadership models and the American business magazine Inc.com created THIS LIST of 100 definitions.
Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard developed the theory of Situational Leadership and have been hugely influential in the evolution of leadership training. Their theory states that different situations require different leadership styles.
Here is their definition of leadership …
“Leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an individual or a group in efforts toward goal achievement in a given situation.”
(Hersey & Blanchard, 1988)
Whilst there are as many different definitions as there are people who have studied leadership, there is a commonality to all the definitions.
Leadership is about achieving results.
These results might be defined in terms of the performance of an organisation or they might be defined in terms of the direction in which the organisation is moving.
But the objective is always to achieve something different than the current status quo.
When you look at all the different leadership models you can see that there are essentially 7 themes.
- Improving performance
- Changing Direction
- Increasing the capacity of people
- Problem Solving
- Taking Responsibility
When looked at like this it becomes possible to think about the skill of leadership and demystify it.
In essence, leadership for change comes from knowing how to answer the following questions in relation to the above 7 themes of leadership.
- How? and
Start With Why
And the most important of these questions is Why.
What Sinek reveals in his leadership model is that when we understand the deeper purpose that sits behind our motivations we let go of petty objections and “buy-in” to the bigger picture objectives.
Because it is only when the Why is answered to the satisfaction of everyone involved that they can own their own change journey.
The difference between a leader who has to use the tactics of command and control and the leader who influences her team to follow is the one who can confidently and consistently describe why change is so important and why the team should accept it.
When the why is clear and the relevance to each person apparent, the team will then start to contribute their own initiative and take the responsibility to work out the what, the how, the when, the who and the where.
How to Create a WHY that works.
If creating a compelling “why” is so important, why do so few leaders make the effort to do it?
Precisely because it takes a lot of energy and effort.
Your “Why” is the case for change and there are two key stages in the development of a compelling “Why”.
The first stage is the compiling of the evidence and its presentation, the second is selling the message.
Stage 1 can also be used to engage some of those you might need to influence, by asking for their help in compiling the evidence. The earlier you can start the engagement process in stage 1 the more effective will be the second stage.
When you engage people early on in the process you will recruit champions to the cause, and you will also see some of the objections you will encounter as you embark on the mission of getting your message out.
The Burning Platform
But some of the survivors faced a terrifying choice.
To stay on the rig hoping that the helicopters would come to their rescue or to make a jump of a hundred feet into the freezing waters of the North Sea.
Their choice was the certainty of death or the slim possibility of survival.
This has now become known as the burning platform dilemma.
There is an old saying.
“People will only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change”
This is a different way of describing the burning platform.
And it describes a fundamental truth about human motivation. We are motivated to move away from pain and towards pleasure. This is the principle of Hedonic Motivation.
However, it is not an equal equation.
The motivation to move away from pain is a much stronger force than the motivation to move toward pleasure.
In his popular book, Thinking Fast and Slow he describes some of the experiments he devised to demonstrate the way in which our perceptions of negative and positive rewards affect the decisions and choices we make.
The key aspect of his work is the light he shines on to the importance of perception.
It is our perception of the level of pain that is important.
The framework of the burning platform will help you to set out your compelling “Why” in such a way that that the pain of staying the same will become greater than the pain of change in the minds of your audience.
Structuring Your Burning Platform.
- Step 1. Identify all the compelling reasons why the change you wish to bring about is important. Pick the two, or three most important and focus on these. By involving others in this part of the process you will unearth issues that are of importance to them that might not appear important to you. Remember, the burning platform has to motivate others to want to change. Therefore, the reasons must be relevant to them.
- Step 2. Bring attention to the pain that these issues are causing or are going to cause in the future. It is important that you have evidence and that the pain you expose is not just based on your personal opinion.
- Step 3. Identify the actions that you believe must be taken. These actions should not just be pain relievers but should also be specific remedial actions that will demonstrate how current pains will be diminished and that future gains will also accrue from the actions you are suggesting.
- Step 4. Make clear the consequences of not taking any action. This is where you describe how things will become worse and harder to resolve if the actions you are suggesting are not implemented. Past examples and case studies are important here to back up your assessment.
Selling Your Message
This is the stage at which many leaders fall.
It takes courage to create and sell an agenda for change. It requires you, as a leader, to put your head above the parapets and this is when you can become a target for those who disagree with your perspective.
This is when your personal “Why” becomes important.
The people you lead and those you want to influence will want to know what is driving you and they will want to understand your personal agenda.
This has become known as the power of authentic leadership.
Bill George had a meteoric career in the corporate world before turning to the world of academia at Harvard Business School.
For many people, it is the selling of the message that creates the biggest barrier to progress. For some, it can conjure up feelings of manipulation and scaremongering.
Others have a different problem, they are so focused on their own agenda that they cannot see or understand the legitimate concerns of those who have a different perspective.
Understanding the principles of authentic leadership will help you to overcome any doubts when it comes to selling your ideas and will help you avoid the pitfalls of any hubris you may experience.
Bill George said
“Authentic leaders monitor their words and behaviours carefully to be attuned to their audiences and to enrol their colleagues and teammates. They do so because they are sensitive to the impact their words and actions have on others, not because they are “messaging” the right talking points.”
Authentic Leadership Principles
George identified six principle areas that you must work on to be an authentic leader
- Developing self-awareness;
- Getting clarity on your values and practising them at all times, particularly when under pressure
- Balancing your extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, understand the pains and gains that drive you.
- Building your support team
- Staying grounded by integrating your life
- Understanding your passions and purpose of your leadership.
When your leadership is authentic, your vision for the future, your decisions and your behaviours are congruent. They make sense to the people you work with and live with. And when you are willing to share these personal principles your goals and objectives become compelling to others.
Peter Senge called this process of self-development – Personal Mastery.
There are no silver bullets
As a leader wanting to deliver leadership for change it can be tempting to look for the short cuts that, on the surface, seem to reduce the time that creating change can take.
But there are no short cuts and there are no silver bullets.
It starts with you and your understanding of authentic leadership and your willingness to embark on the journey of Personal Mastery.
When you are willing to put the effort in to be truly authentic in what you do and develop your personal mastery to the level that your commitment becomes transparent to others then you will recruit people to your cause and create the change in the world that you really want to see.
Dene Stuart is the founder of the Exceptional Leader Academy. Through his experiences of a 30-year commercial career as a leader in the corporate world and as an employer in his own businesses, he has identified 7 key principles of Exceptional Leadership and the skills you must develop if you want to be truly effective as a leader. He has captured these principles in The Exceptional Leader Inventory which you can download HERE
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