How executive leadership can improve anyone

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James Flanagan argues effective leadership is not a trait limited to a few but one that is sown within everyone, constantly seeking the opportunity to blossom. It is the role of executive leadership not only to continually develop their own leadership skills but also to encourage others to do so for themselves.

Our current dearth of leadership and its fruits comes from the narrow definition given to it. Leaders are defined as those who, in charge of leading others to achieve common goals, make a transformational impact and do so in short order. The faster they do it and the more people affected, the bigger the score they register on the leadership scale. Leaders are doing or delivering what it is believed is expected of them, establishing direction, aligning people and motivating them. Rather than developing leaders according to tasks, we would reap greater benefit if we broadened our definition of leadership and who and what leaders do.

Definition

A more ebullient definition defines leaders as people who are very self-aware; they know who they are, what they believe in and what they want to achieve. Grounded by their principles, they respond to life’s challenges with a consistent and unswerving outlook. Like the resourceful chef, they know what they have in the larder and can transform those resources into a banquet. The effective leader knows their personal resources – strengths and weaknesses. This gives them a foundation, an internal compass that directs and allows them to respond to the changing external environment and convert the opportunities presented.

Once this internal foundation has been laid leadership behaviour grows; but if we want the rich harvest to continue, the behaviour must be nurtured and regularly tended to.

Features and characteristics

Leaders are always teaching and learning and in so doing they mould brilliant and eminent people. They persevere and energise themselves by the sheer ambition of their goals. By approaching their challenges in a way their predecessors never imagined, they become innovative and devote themselves to excellence. For them, leadership is not just about getting the job done, it is about behaviours and how the job is done. This means encouraging, visioning, persevering, energising, innovating and teaching.

Successful leaders make themselves and others feel comfortable in a changing, challenging and dynamic world. They know who they are and how they operate in different situations; they have tested and know their personalities. This self-awareness allows them to explore new ideas, approaches and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life’s next corner.

Attitude

Self-aware people overcome obstacles in their own lives thus giving them the ability to lead others to success. Effective leaders are relationship focused based on a profound respect for themselves and others. The effective leadership of others starts with the leadership of self.

A state of mind marked by the absence of negative emotions such as grief, anger and anxiety and the presence of positive emotions such as joy is a tranquil mind. A tranquil mind is achieved by cultivating a kind of calm indifference towards one's circumstances and the outcomes of any actions or decisions taken. By cultivating this 'indifference' it gives leaders the ability to innovate, adapt confidently and turn the changes they encounter into opportunities. This ability is achieved by turning towards negative emotions and studying them closely.

A leader must rid him or herself of dysfunctional ingrained habits, prejudices, cultural preferences and the 'we have always done it this way' attitude, the baggage that blocks rapid, adaptive responses. They thrive by understanding who they are and what they value and by becoming aware of unhealthy blind spots or weaknesses that can derail them. Only those who can pinpoint their own weaknesses can conquer them.

Creativity is the ability to innovate, to absorb new perspectives, to respond quickly to opportunities or threats and to let go of strategies that no longer work and embrace new ones. It is the willingness to work without a script and dream up imaginative new approaches to problems. It is the embrace of new ideas. It inspires the confident optimism that the solutions are out there and blossoms when it is linked to the personal freedom to pursue opportunities.

Leaders take time out to undertake a process of probing self-enquiry but they do so on the run. They continuously dig deep beneath the surface of their daily lives and refocus on their core values and principles. They craft an authentic and strong identity based on their own - rather than someone else’s - understanding of what is right.

Conclusion

Self-awareness is the foundation for creativity and indifference; it generates the confidence to take the necessary action when new opportunities are presented. When we become self-aware we become more understanding of others and it is this understanding that generates effective communication. Leadership, moulded in this way, creates the conditions that encourages people to take risks and builds an environment conducive to managing and sustaining change.

Personal leadership is not a final destination but a never-ending work in progress. For the weak- or narrow-minded, it is a chore with at best the attractive prospect of arriving at some imaginary plateau where one coasts and enjoys the status.

All leadership begins with self leadership and knowing oneself, understanding one’s moods emotions and drives. Self-regulation is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods; the propensity to suspend judgement – to think before acting. Executive leadership is not control or influence but allowing others to develop, blossom and grow.

 

James Flanagan, a training director of a consultancy specialising in positive leadership, has worked as a trainer and a management development consultant in a broad range of companies including IBM, Lilly, Harley Davidson, BUPA, UNICEF, and O-I

Comments

ronnie.mccourt.pobox.com's picture

In my experience as an assessor, trainer and lecturer for over 40 years the argument that everyone has what it takes to be a leader is simply wrong. It's a nice, worthy, egalitarian, idea which I would love to support but I have assessed, trained and taught people in a variety of commercial and non commercial organisations who do not have what it takes or who simply do not want to lead others.  Equally leaders do not have to make a "transformational impact", there are lots out there quietly going about their business - leading in small incremental steps. Not all leaders are 'self aware' either - again a great aspiration but where is the proof? In fact where is the research to back up most of what is asserted in this article? Overall this article, which is far from unique in this fascinating area lacks rigour and sums up what is wrong with the whole leadership industry - lots of assertions, assumptions and intuitively appealing ideas with out any evidence to support them. Context is all and the subject of leadership is far too complicated to sum up in throwaway statements not supported by proper research. Hit the books and give us the facts gleaned from the social sciences, anthropology, sociology and psychology  - I suggest reading Seligman, Dweck, and Kellerman would do for starters.

James Flanagan's picture

Dear Ronnie,

Thank you for your time not only to read the article but also to add your comment.

I combined the works of Hogan (1998) and Lowney (2005) on leadership to give what I realise is a very high-level explanation of the transformational benefits of greater self-awareness and its role in developing leadership.  Hogan identifies the dysfunctional dispositions that cause leaders to derail and Lowney explains how self-awareness and the willingness to self- manage can lead to personal transformation. 

I have combined and used these concepts in workshops with clients, the attendees included all levels of management, and the results have delivered transformational benefits to the organisations by making small changes in attitudes and therefore behaviours. Leandro Herrero in his book Viral Change explains how this happens.

Renewed thanks,

James. 

 

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