One of the key attributes of a successful leader is responsibility for their actions and beliefs. Professor Graham Jones elaborates.
The last couple of years have brought an intriguing quandary for senior leaders, and one that is probably here to stay. These are times when leaders have the option of keeping their heads down, staying out of the firing line, and playing it safe. The other option is to contribute to the current and future health of the organisation by stepping up to be real leaders.
The choices you make as a real leader
Being a real leader is not easy, which is why too many incumbents of leadership positions - knowingly or unknowingly - go for the easier option of safe leadership. Although I am sure you have some friends who have gone for the safe option, you, of course, will have opted to be a real leader and, in doing so, have made a number of choices that you will need to remind yourself of from time to time.
Your choice to take on the pressure
Your choice to take on the visibility of real leadership means that you will be exposed to sometimes relentless pressure that can cause you to feel isolated, lonely, and vulnerable. And that is just during normal times. During economic downturns and when market conditions are tough, you will be stretched to the limits of your capability and resourcefulness. At times like these, it may be hard to see beyond those pressures that your responsibilities and accountabilities bring with them. You will need to remind yourself why you have chosen this path – the internal drivers that provide positive challenge, the change that you bring about because you have the guts to do it, the development you see in your people because you give them the opportunities, and the individual care you provide that makes your people feel valued.
Your choice to be accountable when things go wrong
By being a real leader, the buck stops with you. The failures of your people are your failures – you are the one who is accountable. Have the courage to seek to understand the causes of failure so that you can learn from them and take your learning forward.
Your choice to accept that you will make mistakes
You have chosen to put yourself in a position where you are expected to innovate and take calculated risks. You will sometimes get it wrong and you will make mistakes. These are what will make you a better and stronger real leader as long as you see mistakes as a key part of your learning and development.
Your choice to do what is right
You are aware of your responsibility to make those difficult, often critical, decisions that might not be popular with everyone, but are the right thing to do. You know that no matter how hard you try, there will always be someone who is unhappy with your leadership. There may even be people who think they can do the job better than you. No matter what, it is important that you tackle hard issues head on.
Your choice to drive change
No individual, team, or organisation can ever stand still. Sustained success is underpinned by constant change that takes you to the next level. As a real leader, your responsibility is to lead by example in driving continuous change. Encourage challenge and collective problem solving among your people, because you cannot do it all on your own.
Your choice to be a role model
Role modelling is a critical part of your role as a real leader. Role model what you want to see and hear in your people, and also role model the aspirations of the organisation. If you want your people to raise their performance bars, then raise your own. Show them that you are hungry for feedback because it is so important to your development. And recognise and celebrate success in a way that inspires them to want more.
Your choice to develop the people you lead so that they may some day be your boss
If you do a great job of being a real leader, then you may find that, one day, you are being lead by someone who used to follow you. Your choice to empower and coach your people, combined with encouraging them to be creative and innovative, will enable them to make a significant contribution to achieving your vision. It will also help their individual development as they pursue their own aspirations in the organisation. The best of them may end up being your leader. Take huge satisfaction from this.
Your role in creating a high performance environment
Real leaders create environments where high performance is inevitable and sustainable. If you are to achieve this goal, then there are a number of core principles that you should remember and follow.
Accept that you can no longer do all the things that got you to where you are
This is where some leaders get it wrong. Most are promoted to leadership positions because they are functional experts and they make the mistake of continuing to be involved in the detail because they enjoy and are good at it. But, as you know, leadership is about people, and not about managing a function. As a real leader, your role is to create the conditions for your people to thrive. Minimising constraints and maximising supports for your people is a critical role that will help them deliver the performance you are now leading and no longer 'doing' yourself.
Identify and communicate a compelling vision
Your people want to know where you intend to take them. Figure out what your vision is and communicate it in a way that makes sense and also demonstrates a passion that will inspire your people to follow you and find a way of delivering it even in the most trying circumstances.
Get the strategic focus right
You will have to manage the dynamic tension of current versus future focus. Your responsibility is to focus on the longer-term; specifically, the innovation and wellbeing that the future health of the organisation is dependent on. Of course, your focus will be dragged into the current, day-to-day detail, especially when times are tough, but do not fall into the trap of getting stuck there.
Make sure you have the right people in the right roles
If you are to stay out of the detail, then you need to have people with the appropriate knowledge, skills, and experience in the appropriate roles. This is your responsibility, and achieving this will provide you with the space you require to focus on your job as a real leader.
Clearly define and communicate what is expected of them
Having the right people in the right roles is insufficient – they must know what you expect from them. They want to know what their short-term focus should be and how their individual performances will contribute to achieving the longer-term aspirations and vision of the organisation.
Have the courage to let go
If you have the right people in the right roles, and they know what is expected of them, then have the courage to place your confidence and trust in them to deliver the goods. This will probably feel strange at first as you struggle with relinquishing some control. And it will not be possible before you have the confidence and trust in yourself to pass it on to your people.
Balance vision, challenge, and support
Once you have everything in place, then your day-to-day role as a real leader is to remind people of the vision, challenge them to deliver against it, and support them in doing so. Remember that if you can get the balance right, then you will create an environment where the potential of your people is unleashed and high performance is inevitable and sustainable.
Over to you
Being a real leader will be stimulating, energising, and, perhaps most important, enjoyable. And when you get it right, being a real leader will also provide you with an enormous sense of satisfaction and achievement. It really is something worth striving for.
Top Performance Consulting was founded by leading sports performance psychologist Professor Graham Jones. Graham's experience of consulting with top level performers spans more than 20 years and includes working with Olympic and World Champions from a variety of sports, elite military fighting force personnel, and senior leaders and their teams in FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies. He is also the author of numerous books: his recent book, 'Thrive On Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough' is published by McGraw-Hill