While the world – and certainly many of its organisations – is always in need of more skilful, insightful and capable leadership, it is hard to argue with an authentic heart that the world is crying out for more books on the subject. Thankfully, just as some leaders rise above the multitude, some books stand taller than the mire of self-help tools and celebrity business hagiographies that continue to flood forth. While some of the latter may provide inspiration to improve, or a spark that sets an individual off on a personal development path, comprehensiveness, rigour and practical usefulness tend not to be high on their authors’ agendas. For the leader (at any level), coach, L&D or HR professional who is looking for something that truly provides these so-often lacking qualities, Awaken, Align, Accelerate should be an addition to the Leadership bookshelves that they can wholeheartedly welcome.
While this may sound unduly dismissive of some of the well-received books already in circulation, leadership – seen from the perspective of ‘what does it involve, what is required of leaders and what are the competences, factors and behaviours that need to all be present’ – is complex and multi-faceted. Its development takes not just discipline, but a willingness to acknowledge its multi-disciplinary breadth and depth: while titles that urge us to adopt a (small) number of ‘simple’ steps generate appeal by making an intricate challenge sound less daunting, they can do their own subject matter a disservice in the process.
Awaken, Align, Accelerate, by contrast, is not a surface-skimming, linear read that inspires air salutes or table-thumping yeehaw-isms: a compendious guide to its topic, its aim is to allow those in an organisation’s talent pipeline (recognising that leadership occurs at many levels, and also the role of HR in supporting and guiding leadership development) to adopt a comprehensive framework that – in the words of the book’s title:
- Awakens – allows the individual to gain insight into their impact and aspirations
- Aligns – guides the learning leader to connect their own development with the goals and desired outcomes of their organisation, and
- Accelerates – provides guidance on the skills, behaviours and knowledge that can be acquired to enhance performance.
The authors are also alert to the role of leaders in developing others. The book is structured around a Leadership Competency Model, which identifies sixteen distinct competencies that are grouped into six leadership factors: while Leading People is itself one of these six factors, the sixteen competence-specific chapters themselves include sections on coaching to develop skills in the particular competence.
For each competence, the editors – who have drawn on their own and their MDA Consulting colleagues’ professional experience as well as wealth of established models and theories – provide a competence definition, a self-assessment exercise to evaluate and identify strengths and development needs, practical suggestions for development (which often include conversations as well as tools, models or exercises), case studies and a sample development plan. Importantly, development is seen not as a solo activity, but as one in which those undertaking it are actively encouraged to seek feedback and develop mechanisms for making sure that is received (and, of course, acted upon). Although Relating To People is one of the six main leadership factors, its importance in developing and enhancing the other five is not neglected, with the observation that it evolves from an interpersonal to a ‘broader partnering skill’ at higher leadership levels. (Indeed, it is contrasted with the competencies of Managing Self, about which the authors comment that they ‘don’t vary much by leadership level. They are fairly stable and don’t transform markedly over time or with the demands of the job.’)
A compendium rather than a selection of bullet or numbered lists, the book is summed up well in the author’s introduction:
Leadership is an art as well as a science, much like fine cuisine. Different chefs can follow the same recipes – and use the same ingredients – yet produce very different creations. This book is a distillation of what we’ve learned about leadership, presented in a series of “recipes”. These recipes were created with the psychology of how people develop and were refined in the real-world laboratory of our consulting practice. However, the artfulness of how particular leaders infuse these recipes with passion and creative flair will set their leadership apart from another’s.”
There is undoubtedly a feast of potential learning here, and the book’s carefully structured organisation allows each chef – or diner – to construct a menu that will deliver the greatest nutrition. It may disappoint those looking for the developmental equivalent of a microwave tv dinner: this is not leadership fast food – indeed, it makes it clear that ‘snacking’ is not the best approach. (Chapter 20 – Learning Orientation – might, in fact, be profitably separated out as a corrective for this particular audience). For those prepared to invest more of their time and attention, however, there is richness here that is to be applauded.