When you ask leaders — for our purposes, defined as people who have accomplished results of significance in a manner that captivated those being led — to define or describe leadership, they frequently discuss the interdependence of vision, motivation and execution operating under the umbrella of change.
Let’s face it: If it weren’t for change, people would care a lot less about leadership. Simply stated, leaders are the people who usher the rest of us in, out and successfully through change. They are the ones who step into the uncertainty that rides shotgun with change and (if nothing else) provide hope.
How do leaders garner the attention of those around them and turn the discomfort associated with transition into fresh momentum? It starts with their ability to recognize reality and identify a viable path forward, get the people around them excited about that path and then translate their vision into action that produces targeted results.
Immersed in the particulars of challenge or opportunity, leaders see the future. They connect the dots between what is and what needs to be or what could be. We tend to think of vision as some sort of special gift reserved for the anointed few, but it isn’t. It’s simply the ability to grasp the differential that exists between potential or capability and impending achievement. Parents see it in their children; teachers see it in their students; first-line supervisors see it in their employees; and executives see it in their organizations.
Most of us took a class in college where the professor was brilliant, but we struggled to connect with the wisdom they displayed. You could tell they were smart; you just couldn’t understand what they were saying. Leadership and vision are similar: A leader who sees a path forward has limited impact if others can’t wrap their heads around it and aren’t excited about it. It’s one thing to see the future. It’s another thing altogether to help others see it (and embrace it) with you.
At the end of the day, leaders deliver results that matter. Vision and motivation without pull-through and tangible progress produce cynicism, skepticism and organizational lethargy. Leaders meet or exceed productivity targets in a manner that provides everybody with the opportunity to both witness and take pride in their contributions. Those results become the fuel that reinforces the self-fulfilling prophesy of success.
The specifics associated with how leaders execute these processes has been the subject of exhaustive study over the last century. There are primarily three schools of thought that have provided insight into how leaders effectively execute their roles: trait models, attitudinal models and situational models.
This approach identifies and details the attributes or behavioral characteristics of effective leaders. Trait models seek to provide insight on what good leaders (regardless of position, industry or influence opportunity) have in common. As you might imagine, there have been many contributors in this arena over the years.
The work of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner (“The Leadership Challenge”) stands out. Based on research, they identified that leaders model the way, encourage the heart, challenge the process, inspire a shared vision and enable others to act. These foundational principles are ones leaders can learn, improve upon and consistently employ when it comes time to act.
In the 1960s, a research scientist by the name of Douglass McGregor made it his mission to “get inside the heads” of leaders. When he published his results, the terms theory X and theory Y became common vernacular in the circles of organizational behavior. McGregor suggested that the assumptions leaders hold about the people they are attempting to influence are critical. If they view followers as lazy, limited and lacking potential, that belief governs their approach. Conversely, if they view followers as eager, bright and highly capable, it impacts their approach in a different way. The contemporary contributions of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset have measurably advanced this work. While you can’t see a mindset, predisposition or assumption, you can certainly draw inferences about it based on the leader behavior you do observe.
There is no such thing as a “bad” leadership style. They all work … and they all don’t. Empowerment usually aligns well with followers who know what they are doing and enjoy doing it. Guidance or direction have a high probability of success with followers who lack task-related experience and (for whatever reason) have some form of performance anxiety. Participation and collaboration typically align with followers who are somewhere in between experts and novices when it comes to performing the task in question.
Fred Fiedler was one of the first researchers to advance a situational theory, and the common thread of every contingency approach that has been developed since then is the importance of diagnostic skill. The approach a leader takes is governed by his or her ability to accurately identify a task and assess the ability and willingness of a follower to perform it. In that regard, leading is far less a question of what to do than it is when to do what.
Leadership remains something that is relatively easy to understand but difficult to do. There are many moving parts, and someone’s development as a leader is a function of his or her ability to integrate seemingly conflicting models from different schools of thought into a cohesive, personalized library of resources that bring the leadership landscape into augmented focus.