101 Series: Great Leadership

We often talk about the attributes of great leadership: courage, integrity and behaviours that mirror organisational values. And yet there are so many examples of leaders who don’t display these attributes and who still succeed in their chosen field.   In fact, many don’t just succeed- but rise to the very pinnacle of their profession. So, in this, the first of the 101 Series, we ask:

What is the incentive for aspiring (and current) leaders to change their style and behaviour in the face of this paradox?

We can’t exactly claim that displaying negative attributes will block your progress up the corporate or political ladder because patently that is not true. Just open any newspaper or turn on the tv for examples of extremely senior leaders in every field of life who display behaviours that are inconsistent with the commonly held view of what leadership attributes “should” be.

I asked Peta Slocombe, Psychologist and Leadership Coach, to give a perspective on this:

“.. In addition to what the literature says, we see leaders every day – in counselling, coaching, workplace conflict consultancy and a range of other settings where they are not at their best.  It is clear to me that if you can’t manage your own emotions, regulate your thoughts, and be vulnerable from time to time about your own developmental tasks, you will end up paying the price for it.  We can’t be “connected and authentic” in one area of our lives and ruthless and inauthentic in another. Stress, personal relationships breakdown, reduced work satisfaction and difficulty with relationships in general result. Good leadership means good relationships and the ability to keep adapting to change. To put it bluntly, inauthentic leadership is not sustainable.

This weekend I heard a panel of some of Australia’s top sports coaches talking about the most sought after athlete qualities. They mirror some of the best leadership advice of our time in agreeing that two things create success and high performance– personal authenticity on and off the field; and humility or openness to learning.

If that is high performance, and what we see of leaders engaging in poor behaviour or inauthentic leadership is high stress, conflict and personal turmoil, then the choice is clear.  Good management is one thing.  Good leaders, career long, authentic leaders, are quite another..”

This sentiment is captured nicely in he quote from John Donahoe, President of eBay who said:

Leadership is a journey, not a destination.

It is a marathon, not a sprint.

It is a process, not an outcome.

And by David Gergen in the forward of the wonderful book “True North”, where he has this to say about leadership:

“..Growing up in the shadow of a great university, I always believed that the smartest person made the best leader… Boy did I have some things to learn.

Over a period of some three decades, I had the privilege of serving as an adviser to four presidents in the White House and working alongside leaders in government, the press, business and other fields… They also taught me a lot about leadership.

Yes, there is no substitute for ability: to lead others, you must know what you are doing, have deep curiosity and develop keen judgement. Competence counts. But what ultimately distinguishes the great leaders from the mediocre are the personal, inner qualities – qualities that are hard to define but are essential for success, qualities that each of us must develop for ourselves.”

Bill George, author of “True North” goes on to explain that:

 “The world may have very different expectations for you and your leadership than you have for yourself. Regardless of whether you are leading a small team or are at the top of a powerful organisation, you will be pressured by external forces to respond to their needs and seduced by rewards for fulfilling those needs. These pressures and seductions may cause you to detour from your True North… When you get too far off course, your internal compass tells you that something is wrong and you need to reorient yourself. It requires courage and resolve to resist the constant pressures and expectations confronting you and to take corrective action when necessary..”

And herein, lies the rub. More and more, society is demanding a duality of our leaders that can cause conflict:

  • We want results. We want high profit and good dividends on our investments.
  • But, increasingly, how these profits and results are achieved is beginning to matter too – so the phone hacking scandal in the UK and the financial shenanigans of the Enrons of the world appal. No longer is it a case of results at any cost.

So the answer to the paradox is thus:

Yes, there will be those leaders who seem to have achieved success in spite of the behaviours they have displayed.   But at what cost personally? And what is the opportunity cost professionally? How much more could they have achieved? 

Great leaders are the ones who live authenticity, openness to learning, humility and courage. Great leaders are the ones whose presence lingers long after they’ve left the organisation. Great leaders can match both the need for extraordinary results with the how those results are achieved. Great leaders show it is possible to do both.

What do you think?  Have you seen examples of where so much more could have been achieved were it not for the attributes displayed by the leader? Have you seen leaders who exemplify the characteristics we’ve talked about above and do achieve extraordinary results?

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Tammy Tansley
I am a coffee loving, energetic human who loves words, bright colours and spots, silly t'shirts and good champagne. Mum to two beautiful mischiefs. Long time wanderer around the world. Author. Blogger. Speaker.
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