Last month, The Work Foundation published ‘Exceeding Expectations’, a report from the first Phase of their own empirical research that is, in their own words “a major qualitative study centred on what leaders themselves believe leadership to be and how they practice it”. One of their drivers for doing so was to move our collective understanding of leadership beyond simply having faith in what we belief to the case in the various historical models of both leaders and leadership:

The problem is that in most cases these thoughts about leadership are not empirically derived rather they are conceptual. In fact it is really rather striking that what we know about leadership is on the whole derived from informed belief.”

The over-riding message from the research findings summarized in the report (the full version of which can be downloaded free here) is both refreshingly straightforward and straightforwardly refreshing: “Outstanding Leadership” is truly people-centred. If the report’s findings could be summarised in a single word, it would probably be ‘relationships’ – ie people are the true focus of the best leaders, rather than systems or processes. Their aim is not to control or to impose a way of doing, but to enthuse, motivate and encourage: they seek to give space and voice as much as responsibility. Their message is that if we are to grow and innovate, we must first have the freedom to do so – and be given the ability to do so as ourselves.

The report also shows engagement in a new light: although the report uses the phrase ‘Putting “we” before “me”‘, this could be rephrased as showing that engagement happens with people, not at them. The best leadership is about “us”, not about “here’s my way of doing things and my vision; you engage with it”. By emphasising the importance of co-creation and shared ownership of a vision, the report shows engagement as a dialogue: people are engaged as opposed to enlisted.

Outstanding leaders seek to understand individuals and their motivations and differences, and the value of meetings, processes and procedures is the opportunities for dialogue with team members that they create, as these are channels to better understanding and greater trust. Outstanding leader also look to find roles for people, rather than people for roles, as this route unlocks greater potential. It also creates a greater sense (and depth of sense) of belonging, which is seen as critically important.

Outstanding leaders are also less focused on tasks: tasks don’t achieve results, the people performing them do. For outstanding leaders, life in organizations is not a series of checklists that must be satisfactorily completed, an approach that drew praise from Yann Cramer, a Global Technology Manager at Shell, commenting on the distinction between delegating tasks and delegating space for autonomy in his InnovToday blog:

The distinction most definitely applies to innovation leadership. You do not grow a plant by instructing it to do so, or worse by pulling on it. You do not get people to innovate by tasking them with innovating. You grow a plant by providing the Soil, the Space, the Sun… and letting it happen.”

As a consequence of this, flexibility and humanity are valued as more important by the best-performing leaders than method or process and procedure. As the report phrases this, in a section called “Apply the spirit not the letter of the law”:

Outstanding leadership is fundamentally enhanced and supported by organisational systems and processes and can be strengthened and embedded by organisational culture. But it can also equally be stifled and inhibited by the same. Organisations have enormous power to help and hinder so the ways in which leadership operates within the constraints and enablers that organisations provide is key to effectiveness. Outstanding leadership finds a route through this game of snakes and ladders; focussing on the few key systems and processes which help and paying real attention and effort to them.”

For us, this struck a particular sympathetic chord. Part of our own understanding of effective learning and development, particularly in a context of driving sustainable behavioural change, is that the timing of an intervention is as important as its nature. In the 1980s, the work of Prochaska and Di Clemente showed that people who succeeded in changing their behaviour did so without adhering to a particular model or theory: they used different solutions at different stages of their journey of change. Competing theories of therapy have championed different interventions, but Prochaska has shown that competing theories can be compatible if they are matched to the client’s stage of change. For those who appreciate an aphorism, the report appositely quote Franklin Roosevelt to support this passage:

Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”

Support is also seen as a vital leadership role, especially to the development and maintenance of confidence. While challenge and stretch are key approaches to development, the safety net is also provided as outstanding leaders acknowledge that mistakes are both inevitable and natural. What really matters about mistakes is how failure is dealt with, finding a way forward that allows for learning without unnecessarily undermining confidence. Without the safety net, confidence and trust can be seriously damaged, with ‘collateral damage’ to the performance of the individual, the team and the organisation. (Where over-confidence is an issue, the safety net can be removed to provide a lesson, but the ‘broken bones’ must still be tended.)

Outstanding leaders are also closer to their teams – and the individuals within them – than the merely good, while being less prescriptive or micro-managing. Over-controlling is actually a negative attribute, as it inhibits growth, opportunities for development, innovation and flexibility, and gives undue weight to process and task. The outstanding leader also understands that ‘talk is work’, that conversation leads to greater understanding – which can in return underpin increased motivation and enthusiasm. (The importance of what might seem to be ‘small talk’ is, of course, something we’ve previously highlighted.)

Outstanding leadership is about both human capital – and truly valuing it – and about social capital, as it is through people and their interactions and relationships (including those with their leaders) that truly great performance (and sustainability) is ultimately derived.

So how do we create outstanding leaders?
For those of us who appreciate comprehensively researched empirical data, there is both good and bad news. Phase II of the Foundation’s work will seek to “test out whether outstanding leadership is developable” and they are designing development activity and engaging participants to track as they go through the programme. We will, however, have to wait until the end of the year for initial reporting of this project phase.

Although it has not attracted a welter of press coverage, response to the report has been mainly positive. Quoted in an article at the website of BMS Recruitment, Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) said:

 There is still rightly an emphasis on targets; but with the current economic, social and political challenges we face, the UK needs a radical new approach to management and leadership.

Ultimately a good, or outstanding, manager will always retain a focus on organisational objectives; but it is the way in which they encourage and engage with their staff to help achieve these goals that will determine success.”

It is hard, however, to find comment that responds to the questions posed by Gemma Pearson, co-author of the report, at the Work Foundation’s own blog:

The question remains, however, can outstanding leadership become the norm in UK organisations? Can we help task driven, results oriented leaders to shift their philosophical mindset to put people first and lead for a sustainable future?

There explicit challenges for both organizations and HR functions in the reports findings. Not least of these is that a Competency Framework that attempts to construct an all embracing competence described as ‘Leadership’ could now be seen to miss the point – and possibly not encourage the development of appropriate behaviours. What is needed is a revised Framework that has all the components of Outstanding Leadership subsumed within a number of Leadership Competencies.

As well as components that might be found in many existing frameworks (for example, Communications. Strategic Capability, Influencing, Drive for results etc), the report indicates that new competencies need to be framed and incorporated. These would include cultural agility, investment in others, encouragement of co-creation, creating connections, impact on culture and climate – and to quote a phrase the report itself highlights – ‘creating performance through people’.

Another of the reports repeated findings is also important if we are to address the author’s public questions. The outstanding leaders identified in the report have developed largely through self-awareness, and reflection on feedback they can gather by creating opportunities for dialogue. These leaders accept that do only do they make mistakes (like everyone else) but that they (or their behaviours, actions or decisions) may be the cause of problems elsewhere. It is in large part their determination to be kept honest and be publicly prepared to seek feedback on ‘how well I am doing?’ that delivers results on an ongoing basis.

To help businesses – and their developing leaders – to monitor their own progress in a similarly on-going way indicates there is a need to regularly survey a small number of key questions directly related to their definition of ‘Outstanding Leadership’ with a reasonably sized sample of the population. The bigger challenge is to acknowledge one of the learning points of the report, illustrated by the following passage described a key behaviour of the outstanding leader:

They are also not afraid to develop processes that they need to support them if they do not exist. Their focus is on the practices that provide clarity, give people structure, provide the opportunity for feedback, give time for discussion and enable the crafting and honing of vision. In effect they work with relationships; systems act to support them in this but are a means to an end not an end in themselves. “

It would be all too easy (however sadly – actually make that tragically – ironic) to develop a checklist to monitor how well leaders are transcending the quantitative measurement that checklists provide, and an anonymised sample surveying mechanism that doesn’t provide opportunities for feedback or discussion. Handled properly, however, our earlier thoughts on on-going 360 Degree Haiku might not seem so far-fetched: a simple mechanism that supports feedback and coaching in the moment, to ensure feedback loops stay open, without getting lost in a haze of number crunching. As Penny Tomkin, lead author of the report commented when interviewed in The Guardian:

If you really want to make a difference you have to open up to people.”

If self-awareness is a critical mechanism in leadership development – and we have long agreed that it is – any mechanism must also create opportunities for reflection. There is, after all, a well-known group with no capacity for reflection, but we suspect vampires aren’t the intended target of your future talent management programmes. Finding the right way forward needs to be informed by the initial findings too, and to avoid the pitfall of mechanistic programmes that support learners as they pass through a checklist of tick boxes to demonstrate. In a final comment in the Guardian article that echoes our recent post Boolean logic – going beyond binary, Professor Peter Warr of the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology commented:

Most researchers would agree that desirable features are not exclusively either-or. It’s always a question of balance between desirable themes, and the best balance can depend in part on circumstances and pressures.”

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