I had known him for only a few minutes when Paul said to me, in so many words, "Dude, you should join. It'll be great." He was organizing a risky venture and
recruiting his team. Should I follow? He appeared to be a born leader: persuasive, confident, energetic, passionate - in a word, charismatic. But the venture was risky, and I was hesitant.
Before returning to my decision, let me say that for card-carrying academics, it's not always cool to embrace the many lists of key success factors that leadership books and articles tend to offer. But that doesn't stop me from having my own list of leadership essentials - the qualities that people want and, most importantly, need in their leaders. And they helped me decide whether or not to follow Paul.
What followers want? what they need
My inventory of what people want in their leaders has just three elements: charisma, character, and competence. In considering their own leadership, people wish they were blessed with one of those in particular: charisma. For those who teach and study leadership, charisma is a term not for some magical personality formula, but for interpersonal behaviors (such as communicating a compelling vision, treating people as individuals, and showing confidence in followers) that have been validated by research.
We tend to want charisma in the leaders we follow. But we also want character, which includes integrity and values that we agree with. These and other components are sometimes mentioned in leadership training or taught separately as ethics - a topic for other articles.
The third leg of the stool is competence. This one, I maintain, is the most neglected and perhaps even the most needed component of leadership.
Leader competence: It's not what most people think
Leader competence is not technical expertise, though it helps. It's not even competencies, of which there are so many long lists. Most lists of competencies have, appropriately enough, psychological and interpersonal themes - and the leader who is good at them all probably is pretty competent. But I define leader competence differently - by two core activities:
- directly and successfully addressing key performance challenges by solving problems and seizing opportunities
- motivating others to do the same.
In thinking about your own leadership development, may I suggest disregarding, for the moment, the usual interpersonal competencies and considering these performance-related components of leader competence: (1) having an action and performance orientation; (2) solving problems and seizing opportunities; and (3) developing in oneself and others the mindset and skills to demonstrate these competencies.
Action and performance orientation
The need for an action and performance orientation may seem obvious, until you think about how many managers are too (choose one or more, or add your own) busy, distracted, passive, indecisive, risk-averse, maintenance-oriented, or laissez-faire in their approach. It is worth assessing yourself in these terms, including asking and answering the tough question of how others see you in these regards.
Even if you are action-oriented, are you taking action on the right things - the most important performance challenges that require your leadership? When you do take action, is your tendency to focus on:
- little challenges or big ones?
- personal challenges or those that could benefit others in your organization?
- challenges peripheral or central to the core mission of your company?
- problems to be fixed, while letting important opportunities pass by?
- every new and fleeting opportunity, while important problems fester and grow?
Solving problems and seizing opportunities
Of course, successfully meeting a performance challenge depends on how it is tackled. This is a complex topic, but we would all make great progress if we and our leaders just went back to the basics and executed the steps of a model that can be found in most management textbooks - the phase model of problem solving, perhaps best known among systems engineers. To execute the model
- identify the performance challenge that requires action
- determine your goals
- generate multiple options
- forecast their possible outcomes
- make your decision
- plan and implement
- monitor and adapt as needed.
A few readers will find this model to be very familiar. Some will have vague recollections of memorizing the steps in school. Some will think that they routinely do these things. But the more you think about it, I suspect that you will realize that you actually don't, at least not as often or as thoroughly as you should for important performance challenges. If you stick to the belief that you really do these things when necessary, and claim that you do them objectively and without bias, I bet you'll at least realize this: Many, many leaders don't. And if they did, they would be a lot more competent and deliver far better results.
Developing leadership competence for yourself and others
Developing competence of this sort is not about trying to change your personality traits or even your overall interpersonal style. It's partly about enacting the concrete steps listed above. It's also partly about not falling into common but avoidable traps.
You can avoid self-sabotage by side-stepping these common pitfalls:
- failing to act when we know we should
- pursuing the wrong performance objectives
- losing sight of your goals
- evaluating on short-term, but not long-term, bases
- inadequately planning implementation, assuming it will go smoothly, and failing to create or execute contingency plans.
The opposite of self-sabotaging is achieving self-command. This means, in terms of the competently solving important performance challenges, such things as
- spotting and acting on important problems and opportunities, rather than letting them slip past
- pursuing the right goals
- maintaining proper goal focus
- assessing both pros and cons for both short term and long term
- planning well, including making contingency plans.
Leadership is, by definition, involving and motivating other people as well as oneself. Leader competence is about inspiring others to perform at high levels by solving problems and seizing opportunities, within appropriate boundaries. You can spread the competence and embed it in the culture by modeling this type of competence yourself and clarifying the boundaries - strategic, ethical, cultural, and perhaps others - over which people should not stray.
You also can bring in new people based in part on their track records of solving problems solved, identifying and realizing opportunities, and their current progress on major performance challenges. Identify your best current contributors via nominations, relevant performance appraisal criteria, data and critical incidents, and observe who people turn to for advice and help when they face difficult challenges. Train and develop others via workshops, case studies, and challenges that stretch people, both on and off the job. Although these are standard learning and development (and culture-inducing) recommendations, it's the content - true leader competence - that differs from standard practice.
Onward and upward
If you've got a few extra minutes, glance over this article one more time. You are likely to see common actions that will undermine your competence as a leader, plus actionable tactics for enhancing your competence. And to the extent that a short article can just skim the surface of an important topic like leader competence, you can self-develop by discussing any or all of those actions with your colleagues, team, and respected mentors.
Returning to the opening scenario: After learning more about Paul, I did join him, enthusiastically, in his risky, highly uncertain venture. Why? Although it's true that he is a man of character who is overflowing with charisma, I followed primarily because he would provide the leadership essential that I and the others truly needed: his competence was world-class. He was performance- and action-oriented; alert to both problems and opportunities; great at execution; and goal-focused and persistent but appropriately flexible. Without compromising other important leadership qualities, his sheer competence made him the leader most likely to ensure our success.