We all have experienced ineffective ‘leaders’ at some point in our careers. Many people are mistakenly referred to as leaders simply because of their title or the position that they hold in their organization. But just because a person occupies a ‘leadership positon’ does not mean that they actually perform as an effective leader. Just like any other business activity, the measure of leadership effectiveness must be based on actual performance. Effective leaders experience performance success because they have willing followers, they possess attractive leadership characteristics, and they actually use their leadership skills.
Leaders have willing followers
A leader without followers is simply not a leader – after all, without followers, who are they really leading? And since leaders and their followers need each other, their objectives and interactions must be mutually supportive. They both want something, and they rely on the other party(s) to help them to acquire it. On the one hand, the leader wants to achieve an outcome, and after they determine an appropriate direction, they will need their followers to complete activities that will bring forth their desired result. (This is why leaders try to surround themselves with the right people). And followers will support a leader who will satisfy a common collective need or desire, therefore they will be attracted, and their support will be retained, based on their confidence in the leader’s ability to accomplish this.
But the most effective leaders don’t just have followers; they have willing followers. The commitment given is totally different between a follower who is required to support a leader and one from whom the leader has earned their willing support. Leaders who have followers simply because of their title, or position, will never have the same effectiveness as those who attract and retain truly loyal followers based on their actual leadership performance.
Since people are by their nature different, their expectations of what a leader can do for them, and therefore their willingness to follow, can be different as well. Despite the fact that many leaders may obtain initial support from core ‘groups’ of similar people with similar desires, their real success will depend on their ability to make a connection with as many followers as necessary despite any differences that exist among them. And while it may be easier to lead a group of homogenous followers, who have some common characteristic, a greater challenge exists for the leader who is required to bring together very diverse followers in order to achieve some higher goal that is beyond their initial commonality.
You cannot lead if you don’t have the leadership characteristics that are necessary to attract followers
How would you answer this question; the main characteristic of an effective leader is…….?
I can assure you that we would see a great variety of responses based on what is most important to individuals when they are deciding whom they should or should not follow. In many instances people will default to a person’s high technical competency as a key leadership characteristic, but relying only on technical competency is a too frequent recipe for ineffective leadership performance. Many of us have experienced the frustration that occurs when a highly technical person takes on a leadership role, yet still fails to achieve effective performance results.
And while various levels of technical capability are important (depending on the situation), for effective leadership performance to be experienced, significant personality based non-technical skills need to be present as well. In contrast to the previous example, I am sure that we can find many cases where performance success was realized when non-technical people have lead technically superior followers. I have experienced this with many of my clients, so I am comfortable in saying that effective leadership is not rooted in technical competency, but really requires the presence of some combination of suitable non-technical personality-related skills.
So what are the essential skills for effective leadership and what is their right combination? It depends on the situation.
Despite what many people want to hear, there is no one desirable leadership model. The great variances in people, as well as their changing needs within dynamic environments, creates a level of complexity that no one form of leadership can consistently respond to. Failure to recognize, and respond to, this fluid complexity is why so many people perform poorly in a leadership role. And as a result, truly effective leadership is quite rare. Similarly, leadership development programs that fail to recognize the dynamic and individualistic nature of leadership are really only sharing information about possible ‘desired’ leadership traits, a process that later results in poor leadership performance when there is a mismatch between the education and the application. In other words, since one leadership ‘shoe’ does not fit all, unless development programs are adaptive to individual needs they will generally be informative but ineffective.
Come on, there must be some common performance characteristics of effective leaders
Effective leadership involves adapting any number of appropriate non-technical performance characteristics to a given situation. However, beyond an individualistic approach to effective leadership, we can say that there are some broad categories of performance-related characteristics that most effective leaders will have covered.
Invariably, effective leaders have a vision of what they want to accomplish. Whether on a societal, organizational, departmental, team or individual level, the most effective leaders can visualize a realistic and obtainable goal, or solution, that they want their followers to satisfy at a specific point in time in the future. This ability to visualize is based in their individual cognitive capability which enables them to organize and evaluate complex information in order to develop solutions to problems that will be effective within a given time horizon. The farther into the future that a leader has to contemplate, and plan for, the greater will be the complexity of the information involved, the strategies to be developed, the solutions to be formulated and the contingencies to be considered. Higher levels of cognitive capability help to shape the strategic focus that leaders use to guide their followers.
If a person does not have the cognitive capability necessary
for their specific leadership requirement
they will fail to lead effectively.
For example, leaders of countries or societies will require significantly higher levels of cognitive capability due to the far more complex and inter-related issues that they need to understand, and contend with, and the farther into the future that they will have to plan. Because of the larger number of potential followers, and thus a greater degree of diversity, the complexity of issues they face becomes substantial.
Beyond the influence of organizational size, at any leadership level, anyone who does not have the required cognitive capability to perform in their respective leadership role will spend more time protecting their position than they will spend leading. Without cognitive capability there will be no vision, and without vision there will be no direction and no progress.
High performing leaders can effectively communicate their vision to their current and future followers in a way that is understandable, relevant and motivating. Again, recognizing diversity, they adapt their communication to the communication needs of their followers in order to get their message across most effectively. By doing so they are much more capable of influencing, attracting and retaining current and new followers.
They create rapport with their followers through their strong interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. By establishing rapport, effective leaders gain trust, credibility and loyalty among their followers who, as a result, are more willing to follow, to listen to the leader’s vision, to commit to the vision, and to actively perform in ways that will fulfill it.
While leaders want to be personally successful, they understand that this requires their follower’s help (no one is an island). Having a true team perspective, they are motivated to help their followers to be successful as well, knowing that when they do everyone’s needs will be satisfied. It is not surprising that true leaders are not afraid to surround themselves with talented people, and that they devote time and energy to the development of future internal leaders.
They embrace and facilitate change. A leadership vision is never about maintaining the ‘status quo’, as it always involves some degree of change. Effective leaders consistently have a growth-oriented mindset and the ability to encourage similar change-oriented thinking in their followers. By personally embracing change they act as a role model for change in the people around them, and they use their interpersonal and communication skills (building rapport) to influence their follower’s comfort and trust in change as well. Similarly, like all top performers, the growth-orientation of effective leaders translates in their commitment to life-long learning and they likewise encourage career-satisfying ongoing learning and development in their followers.
Effective leaders are self-aware. They are aware of their general performance capabilities and their leadership-related strengths and weaknesses (accurate third-party assessment is valuable here). This self-awareness helps them to understand their leadership ‘comfort zone’, their natural reactive tendencies, and when their preferences will be effective in given situations. More importantly, self-awareness enables them to determine when their preferences will not be effective in a given situation. Doing so will help them to adapt, and thus perform better, when situational leadership demands, and the diversity of their followers, are outside of their specific comfort zone. Finally, individualized self-awareness enables them to identify specific performance-related gaps, to then develop specific performance enhancement activities and thus to develop a broader, more all-encompassing leadership capability which in turn makes situational response and adaptation easier.
You won’t keep your followers if you don’t use your leadership skills effectively
Leaders actually perform. It’s really that simple.
Effective leaders don’t promise to perform, they don’t claim to have performed when they have not - they simply do what they say they will do. And, as humans will, should they make a performance mistake, they admit it, they learn from it and they correct it. We can say that, in addition to their actual performance, effective leaders gain credibility with their followers due to their honesty and integrity and their willingness to accept responsibility for their actions.
Leadership is essentially an action, not a title, or a promise. It is one thing to know about leadership, but it’s totally another to actually be an effective leader. There are numerous books and leadership development programs that will tell people how to be a leader, but they are relatively useless unless the education is translated into practical individualized application (this is where performance coaching can help). We all have various degrees of leadership characteristics and the potential to enhance our leadership skills. The key is to consistently grow and expand our leadership capabilities by using the skills that we have, and being aware of, and developing, the skills that we are missing. Doing so will expand our ability to perform and to engage larger numbers of diverse followers by adapting to all of their needs. The benefit is that people will be attracted to a leader who they believe will help them, and they will stay with a leader whose performance proves it.