In the last 12 months alone there have probably been, conservatively, 1,000 books published on the subject of leadership. Type “What makes a great leader?” into Google, and you’ll receive around 800 million hits. With so much insight and advice out there, why do we still get it wrong? Why do we still see leaders and executives failing? According to DDI’s latest Global Leadership Forecast 2021 research just 48% percent of leaders rated the quality of leadership in their organisation as ‘high’ and only one in four HR professionals rated their overall leader quality as ‘high’.
Having spent more than 20 years working in the field of leadership and leadership development, I am passionate about leadership. I believe excellence in leadership is fundamental to the success of organisations, and society more broadly. But, for some time, I have struggled with the overly prescriptive approach taken in much of the literature. Excellence in leadership is often defined by a somewhat generic set of five to 10 habits, attributes, or characteristics. Even more disturbing is when leadership is reduced to what I describe as “leadership by quotes”; social media sound bites that attempt to capture and present the essence of leadership in a single all-encompassing leadership quote.
While the rich body of research and insight in our field is useful, a lot of it implies the context for leadership is somewhat generic and one-dimensional. The reality is that, in today’s business environment, leadership takes many forms and the focus and priority of leadership varies from one situation to another.
Like many other disciplines, leadership is ultimately defined by what you do and how you do it. However, this may not be the same for all situations and contexts and, therefore, efforts to articulate a defining list of leadership attributes may be limited and even flawed.
The role of context in leadership is not new (e.g., Fiedler’s Contingency Approach Theory, House’s Path-Goal Theory, and Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model). Situational and contingent theories of leadership emerged in the 1940s and 50s as direct challenges to the traditional trait-based or “Great-Man” theories of leadership that dominated research to that point. However, these too often imply that an effective leader is one who simply adjusts or moderates their approach to suit a set of predefined situations or types. The effective leader is, therefore, one who is adaptive. While research has found adaptability to be an important leadership quality, it still doesn’t explain why some leaders perform well in one situation and struggle in another.
If we accept that leadership is contextual then the first question a leader (and organisation) must ask themself in any assessment or feedback activity is what am I being asked to do (or what am I asking of myself). The second is, what do I bring that will contribute to my success and what do I bring that could limit my success. Finally, what can I change and/or what do I need to manage more effectively.
While all these questions are important, it is the first one that is so often missing from the conversation about leadership. This defines the context within which a leader will operate. To understand leadership, we need to understand the priorities that a leader must drive. Are they to open a new geographic market, drive productivity, or build the brand and reputation of the company? The reality is that these priorities require a different portfolio of capabilities, experiences, and even personal attributes. A leader who is successful against one priority may not be successful for another. When setting up an assessment and feedback process:
Questions two and three may appear to be simple references to self-awareness (which has gained a lot of energy within the leadership development community). But self-awareness alone is insufficient. Again, it is about context—what are you required to do, and what do you bring that might enable or limit your success?
At Profiling Online, we use a simple framework within our platform to help individuals and organisations understand the relationship between what is important and what they bring to their role. We do this using an importance rating which is typically captured by the individual and their manager. The use of an importance rating brings focus to the feedback. It looks at feedback results in terms of how important capabilities are to one’s current or future roles. For example, without an importance rating an individual and their leader will often default to areas that are considered ‘weaknesses’. With access to the importance rating the individual and manager may deprioritise a particular capability if it is not as important to their current and/or future success. The answer might simply lie in managing the impact of this gap and/or seeking out others for whom it might be a strength. The caveat here, of course, is ensuring the priorities, as defined by the manager and individual, are suitably aligned to the company’s expectations and priorities.
Interestingly, most practitioners and consultants in the field of leadership development acknowledge the importance of context. This comes in the form of statements like ‘companies need to their align talent and leadership practices with their business priorities’. However, in practice many find it difficult to operationalise this concept. So, in summary:
Begin with the End in Mind: The range of role responsibilities leaders is vast and, if leaders are not clear on their organisation’s priorities and key challenges, efforts for performance and development may lack focus and relevance. The key is to understand the challenges appropriate to a particular role or group so that development is ultimately focused on the “right” things.
Assess Fit for Purpose: Once leaders’ critical business imperatives are defined, it is important to assess individuals against these priorities. Using a thorough and robust assessment will allow for identification of their relevant strengths and development areas within the context unique to their challenges.
Target Development Priorities: Based on the information gathered through the assessment, structure targeted and relevant development plans (for groups and individuals) that address key gaps and leverage valuable strengths.