What makes an outstanding leader? This question seems to be one of the burning questions of our time. Over the last few years we've seen, heard and experienced the consequences of leadership - the positive and negative. Corporations that spent millions of dollars to acquire the most outstanding leaders found themselves led into bankruptcy. Segments of our economy that were believed to have the best and brightest leaders have failed, leaving a wake of economic and human suffering.
Hundreds of books have been written by leaders past and present, as well as experts from the academic world, all claiming to have the answer to this question. Glancing over at my bookcase, I can count at least 62 books devoted to Leadership. Do any of these authors or books have the answer ? Maybe, but few have the research that can support their theories and suppositions.
Recently an answer has emerged, and it's based on a two-year qualitative study entitled, Exceeding Expectations: The Principles of Outstanding Leadership, conducted by The Work Foundation. In summary the "research found that outstanding leaders combine a drive for high performance with an almost obsessive focus on people as the means of achieving this." If you read the postmortems of the leaders of the companies that failed, it would seem that their obsessive focus was on financial performance - profits. The report goes on to say, "that there is now evidence to support a systemic, people centered approach to high performance leadership. This is a paradigm shift for most leaders who remain focused on the numbers and has implications for all organizations seeking to improve performance."
This may indeed be a paradigm shift for many and a much needed one, but it isn't for many of my colleagues and myself. For our entire careers we have advocated for people centered approaches as a way to improve and achieve high performance. I formalized my beliefs, experiences and the insights of many of the authors sitting on my bookshelf into a program entitled Relationship - Centered Leadership®. This study is an affirmation of this program and my continued pursuit of a relationship/peopled - centered approach to assisting leaders and organizations in making the shift from "good to outstanding".
As I share a few of the key findings and points from the study I will note the synchronicity and parallels with Relationship - Centered Leadership (RCL). RCL is composed of six Hallmarks for developing self-awareness and leadership skills: Presencing, Purpose, Resiliency, Moral Courage, Trustworthiness and Authenticity. These Hallmarks, as the study found, are the shifts that are critical in making the change from a good to an outstanding leader.
The study identified the following distinctions between good and outstanding leaders:
All leaders talked about engaging others in a vision. Outstanding leaders conveyed a greater depth and higher purpose when speaking about vision (Hallmarks: Purpose and Moral Courage)
· All leaders understood the need for trust, respect and honesty. Outstanding leaders understand how they combined these attributes to create the conditions for exceptional performance and they knew the role they had in creating these conditions. (Hallmarks: Trustworthiness and Authenticity)
· All leaders respond to failure. However, outstanding leaders maintained and built trust by recognizing what was learned and achieved, and the growth that will come from this experience. (Hallmark: Resiliency)
· All leaders understood the importance of team spirit and engagement. Outstanding leaders shaped the environment through team bonding, removed hierarchy and formed deep relationships. They co-created plans instead of making all the decisions. (Hallmarks: Presencing and Trustworthiness)
· Outstanding leaders clearly saw the link between behavior and outcomes, therefore provided space for meaningful conversations. Good leaders were less likely to see the link between process and outcomes. (Hallmark: Presencing)
In addition, the study identified specific mindset shifts that separated outstanding leaders from good leaders. Here are four of the seventeen identified in the study:
Good: Objectives and targets
Outstanding: People and engagement (Purpose)
Good: Delegate task
Outstanding: Delegate space for autonomy (Trustworthiness)
Good: Tend to focus on work
Outstanding: Seek to understand people and motives (Presencing)
Good: Reflect on learning about job
Outstanding: Reflect on learning about self and others (Resiliency)
This study is significant for a number of reasons; it provides a template for organizations in designing their leadership development programs, it gives guidance to individuals in what courses and training to select that will assist them in making the shift from "good to outstanding", and hopefully it begins to transform how organizations prioritize their training budgets. There is now evidence that the "soft stuff" not the "hard stuff", is what makes the difference in performance and outcomes in workforce engagement, organizational performance and customer loyalty.
My belief is that the challenges of this decade require people centered approaches to leadership. New ideas and technology may hold the promise and ability to address our challenges, but people must embrace and support the changes for them to be successful. In forty years there will be over 9 billion people on this planet; 3 billion more than there are today. The planet's greatest challenges and resources are people. Leaders who understand this and learn how to engage and motivate people wisely will not only be successful, they will be significant.