For many years, we have tried to understand leadership and what makes leaders effective. Initial viewpoints explored key characteristics of successful leaders, but there was nothing to suggest that a particular set of qualities could be identified, debunking the notion that leaders are born, not made. This insight led to the examination of leaders’ behaviors with the presumption that it wasn’t who leaders are but what they do that makes them effective. Again, this investigation provided inconclusive evidence.
Ultimately, an interactional perspective has been adopted, presuming that a combination of factors (such as the leader’s characteristics, the followers’ characteristics, the leader’s behaviors, the followers’ perspectives on those behaviors, performance demands, and a consideration of the context or current situation) need to be aligned for someone to lead effectively. This approach demonstrates that leadership is more complex than we assume. Most people are placed in or emerge into leadership positions because they are successful in a particular role or job. However, given the complexity of leadership, the “star” performer may not automatically become the “star” leader.
Why do we care so much about knowing what makes a leader great? The answer lies in the purpose of leadership: to influence others — to set the stage for people to flourish and perform to their potential. The research on employee engagement and team and organizational culture demonstrates that leadership is about creating and maintaining an environment where people and teams can thrive and are a position to achieve their goals.
Engaging employees effectively stems in large part from a consideration of how to create an environment that helps people fulfill their fundamental psychological needs of competence, autonomy, relatedness, and purpose and meaning (see, for example, Deci and Ryan’s research on self-determination theory and Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”). Research and discourse on creating an effective team culture has identified several factors, conditions and activities that play an essential role, such as creating psychological safety and a sense of belonging as well as working on team dynamics and coordination (see, for example, Dan Coyle’s book “The Culture Code,” Google’s Project Aristotle and research on the social-cognitive approach to understanding expert teams).
Thus, new ideas about leadership have emerged. While theories such as transformational leadership are still supported, a focus on servant leadership, authentic leadership, and leading from within (see, for example, the social identity approach to leadership) have been espoused as important.
In my work coaching a variety of leaders in many different roles and contexts, we have found three activities to be a useful starting point.
1. A Leadership SWOT Analysis
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a crucial skill for society in general and for leaders in particular. It can be broken down into two categories: self-intelligence (self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate) and other-intelligence (social sensitivity and the ability to foster and navigate relationships with others). Thus, applying the well-known activity of a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to yourself can help you begin to assess and develop your emotional intelligence.
Start by thinking about your strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Use specific examples of your leadership as well as other leaders you have seen or been led by to aid in your self-reflection. Then (note this step is a deviation from the traditional SWOT), think about the situations and conditions that create obstacles to your effective leadership as well as the leadership people under whom you seem to thrive. This part of the activity is about the things in the “environment,” or outside of your control, that either trigger your weaknesses or enable you to leverage your strengths.
Given that you have one, very biased, view of yourself, solicit some feedback from others for each of these areas. Lastly, spend some time thinking about what your SWOT analysis looks like not only in general (your everyday leadership), but also, importantly, under times of stress and pressure.
2. Reflecting on Vantage Points
It is human nature to have a certain way of seeing things. We naturally form, whether we are aware of it or not, a vision of everything. As a leader, you have a perspective — an ideal in your mind — of yourself and how you lead, what you want the people you lead to be like, what you want your relationships with them to be like and how you want things to be done.
Take a few blank sheets of paper, and reflect on these ideals. For example, who is your ideal employee? What are their characteristics, how do they think, what do they do or not do, how do they approach their job, and how do they respond under pressure? Becoming clear on your vantage point will help you know what you want, be able to effectively communicate what you want, and know how you might react when your ideals are or are not being met.
3. Clarifying and Applying Values
Creating an optimal organizational culture starts with identifying clear overarching values for the teams and the company. However, that activity is the somewhat easier part of the process, and your role in it may depend on various factors, such as your level of leadership and your unique situation. The more important, yet more difficult and often less attended to, part of creating and maintaining the right environment comes from making sure there is alignment with those values (i.e., creating clarity about what the values look like in action and working to continuously align the behaviors, systems and practices of everyone in the organization with the core values).
The recent social identity approach to leadership helps us understand that the leaders are important “champions” of the culture in two ways: They are a model of alignment with the culture (not perfectly but consistently), and they demonstrate a commitment to helping everyone with cultural alignment.
Think about how you live the company values as well as your own values. Clarifying who you are as a leader and sharing those values with the people you lead will go a long way in helping you to lead authentically, create strong relationships, and navigate obstacles and difficult conversations and situations. Championing alignment also means:
- Clearly identifying the key behaviors, systems and practices that reflect the core values in action (finding ways to involve your team members in this process can help with engagement and buy-in).
- Creating opportunities for the team to routinely check in on value alignment.
- Demonstrating that no one is able to operate outside of the values (for example, your star performers don’t receive special treatment).
This approach will help create an environment where everyone can thrive and effectively handle the ups and downs of team dynamics and performance.
While it would be easier to know the top 10 things effective leaders do, leadership isn’t that simple. Through years of exploration in many contexts and through many lenses, it is clear that leadership is a skill. Development of a skill takes intentional, continuous reflection and investment and requires a growth mindset. If you want to be an effective leader, be open to exploring who you are as a leader, work to create the right environment for the people you lead to thrive and commit to the lifelong pursuit of developing yourself as a leader.