While volumes have been written on effective business leadership, WA academic and author of a new book Nick Forster found top managers work with some core components.
Over the past 30 years, the business leadership ‘industry’ has grown exponentially, with hundreds of business leaders, academics and consultants offering their views on the ‘secrets’ of effective business leadership and, in the process, producing a mountain of articles, books and autobiographies on the subject.
And yet for many practising leaders and managers, identifying (and acquiring) the myriad skills, competencies, personal qualities and attributes often associated with consistently effective leaders seems to be as elusive as it ever has been.
In fact one of the first things to strike anyone who has studied leadership in the recent past is how critical some commentators have been about our understanding of this. For example:
“Even in the wayward, spluttering world of management theory, no subject has produced more woffle than leadership ... The value of academic research to the complexities of the chaotic situations that most business leaders and managers find themselves in today is practically zero.” (Micklethwaite and Woolridge, 1997.)
“[No] unequivocal understanding exists as to what distinguishes leaders from non-leaders … Never have so many laboured so long to say so little.” (Bennis and Nanus, 1985.)
“Leadership is the worst defined and least understood personal attribute sometimes possessed by human beings … There are as many definitions of leadership as there are writers on the subject.” (Lippitt, 1982.)
So, is there really anything new or definitive that we can say about the skills, competencies, personal qualities and attributes of effective and successful business leaders? During the past 12 years I’ve been privileged to be involved in dozens of leadership and management development courses and action learning programs, with more than 2,000 MBAs, executive MBAs, and managers and professionals from many different business and industry sectors in the UK, Singapore and Australia.
During the past three years, while preparing a practitioner book on leadership and people management, I also reviewed more than 700 articles and books on these topics, as well as writing, researching and consulting in these areas.
By reflecting at length on what has been written about successful business leadership and effective people management, and evaluating how much of this is actually operationalised in the real-life practices of many professionals, managers and leaders, it has been possible to identify the core skills, qualities, competencies and attributes of consistently successful business leaders. These include the following:
• self-awareness and self-discipline;
great self-motivation and the capacity for hard work, combined with a good understanding of their physical and psychological limitations;
• competence and credibility;
• a mixture of several kinds of intelligence;
• honesty and integrity;
• exceptional two-way communication skills, combined with an ability to lead, direct and focus dialogues with others;
• the ability to engage with the minds and hearts of others and, as a result, a capacity to motivate and inspire their followers;
• the capacity to question ‘common-sense’ ways of doing things combined with the ability to make fast practical day-to-day decisions with incomplete information or knowledge;
• an ability to learn and unlearn quickly, while not discarding good leadership, people management and organisational practices that have stood the test of time;
• the ability to use power effectively, based on an understanding of the art of organisational politics;
• increasingly, a hybrid blend of what have been traditionally regarded as ‘male’ and ‘female’ leadership and people-management styles;
• self-confidence and resolve in adverse or uncertain situations, without resorting to autocratic or domineering behaviour;
• the ability to think beyond the present and envision the future;
• the capacity to initiate, lead and manage the complex processes of perpetual organisational change, innovation and learning, without becoming reactive ‘fad-surfers’;
• an appreciation of the role that employee knowledge and intellectual capital now play as key drivers of organisational success and profitability in a growing number of businesses and organisations;
• an understanding of both the potential and the limitations of new and emergent technologies in organisations, and an awareness of the profound impacts these will have on businesses and organisations during the first two decades of the 21st century; and
• high ethical standards, combined with a pragmatic understanding of doing business in the real world.
This is not to say that every leader of every business will be utilising all of these on a weekly basis, but any successful leader running any enterprise of a reasonable size will be using most of these, most of the time.
In addition, studying the evolution of leadership practices over the past 2,000 years leads to a simple, but extremely important conclusion – much of what we’ve long known about effective leadership and people management throughout the ages we seem to have to reinvent with each new generation.
Most of the qualities, skills and competencies we associate with modern-day leadership and people management, such as communication, cooperation, negotiation skills, teamwork, the use of power and influence, strategic acumen, situational leadership and the ability to envision the future, were also essential for the survival and evolution of our ancient ancestors during the past 200,000 years.
These primal leadership skills are as relevant today as they have always been, and they will continue to be important for the foreseeable future. Of equal importance, all of these can be learned and developed by any manager or professional, given sufficient self-awareness, self-belief, time and commitment.
However, as the list above indicates, we also have to factor in globalisation and the fast-changing and sometimes chaotic contexts that many leaders and managers now work in, and consider some new skills and mind-sets that are required to succeed in these environments.
The ability to lead and manage others in situations characterised by uncertainty and rapid change is now an integral part of the repertoire of successful leaders, managers and business professionals. Knowledge, intellectual capital, continuous innovation, organisational learning and new technologies are rapidly becoming the main drivers of competitiveness in a growing number of industries and business sectors.
Leaders/managers must not only be able to understand the profound implications of these changes at a very deep level, they must also find new and more effective ways of enabling their followers to cope with these new organisational realities, and help them grow and develop, perform to their maximum potential and to continually aspire to ever-higher levels of performance and achievement.
Last, but not least, adaptable and nimble business leaders quickly learned the painful lessons of the dot.com collapse of 2000-2002, and realised that technology cannot be used as a substitute for the five factors that continue to drive all successful businesses – great leadership/ management, great employees, great ideas, great products and great services.
However, truly visionary and forward-thinking leaders also under-stand that emergent technologies will impact on their businesses and organisations in ways that few people can currently appreciate or even imagine over the next two decades.
• Professor Nick Forster’s latest book, Maximum Performance: A Practical Guide to Leading and Managing People at Work, will be published worldwide this month. He is giving a breakfast presentation on February 13 at the WA Club titled ‘The Androgynous Leader’. He can be contacted at the UWA Graduate School of Management, firstname.lastname@example.org