How would you describe an effective leader? Wherever you look you’ll find different thinking. One article on leadership cites qualities such as assertiveness, adaptability, intelligence, and conscientiousness as the most important. Another study references the importance of knowledge sharing. Yet another article says you must be able to connect, motivate, and inspire a sense of ownership of shared objectives.
There are many theories and models of leadership, but whether you’re someone on an executive board, a head of a directorate, or the manager of a school or department, leadership is about guiding and impacting outcomes, enabling groups of people to work together to accomplish more than they could do individually.
In this sense, leadership is a behaviour. It is something you do, not something you are. Some people in official leadership roles are poor leaders, whilst other people displaying effective leadership behaviours have no formal authority. It is their actions, not their words, that motivate and inspire trust.
Leadership is a vital part of every organisation and yet often leaders share the same five dysfunctions as other teams, and don’t all pull in the same direction.
The other day we had a conversation with a university about working with their top team.
The Vice Chancellor (VC) wanted to change the leadership culture in the institution, because things had become siloed. The executive team didn’t have a shared objective, and rather than all being aligned to a broader ‘whole university’ strategy, people were turning up to meetings to defend their own domains.
The VC wanted to change that culture to one of collaborative leadership, and to cascade this approach down to all the faculties and schools.
The idea was to start with the senior leaders and support them to host a series of conversations to explore strategy and culture with staff across the whole organisation. The aim was to enable a properly inclusive conversation that allowed feedback and ideas to come up from the bottom.
Of course we love this idea. It felt right to focus attention on the top team first, as they would need to explore a different way of being effective together at the same time as rethinking their whole top-down style. Focussing them on a really practical project – the institution-wide conversation – offered a great opportunity to deliberately “act their way into a new way of being”.
Understanding what a leadership team is for
We were at another university recently working with a team of middle managers with a similar challenge. They were trying to change the way their service interacted with the wider university.
Beyond purely representing their own function, they came to understand that as a team their job was to collectively join the dots, listen and support each other, and to engage with challenges and problems beyond their own area of interest, even if they were not individually responsible for delivering all the solutions.
A big part of that work was to find ways to air the misunderstandings and unexpressed needs that were present, and to practise different behaviours together to find better ways to handle those conflicts safely.
A key realisation in that group was being an effective leader meant working out how to empower people in their teams and equip them to do the things they needed them to do. For example, rather than going along to all meetings, “where others will relinquish power and authority to us as the most senior people in the room,” they decided to experiment with absenting themselves to see how the gap would be filled by others.
At the end of the session, we did a very quick exercise on what people understood the role of an effective leader to be. There was no clear consensus. Only a few had thought about the power of an inclusive approach, or how to create environments where people feel they belong and have agency.
What good looks like
In our work with leadership and management teams, we often find people have a narrow toolkit and may not have any experience of what good looks like. As consultants and facilitators we have access to a bigger toolbox and a wider breadth of experience from a range of organisations. This helps us see and introduce different ways of being.
We will share tools and behaviours that make a tangible difference. Using simple things like check-ins or getting people to talk to each other in pairs can change the tone of a meeting and set different levels of communication.
During a workshop, for a brief window in time trust is increased, the ability to work with conflict is increased, and people enjoy an enhanced sense of connection, collaborate better and have a shared identity. They can identify and say what is really on their mind. Over time the confidence to apply the tools outside the group grows. And even if it is fleeting, it helps people understand what is possible.
We often say, “This is a safe place to work on this, and it will translate to the outside. If you can become really effective here in this team, there will be immediate, positive consequences for the teams that you lead because you’ll be a tiny bit different. And there will be definite consequences for the teams that you’re trying to influence above you too. That will come, if more slowly. Practice makes better.”
A practical approach to leadership development
We prefer this practical approach over theoretical-based leadership development programmes. Theories can fall into the ‘true but useless’ category when applying them in day-to-day encounters. What we find works better is:
- Focussing on developing soft skills with a simple set of tools
- Building confidence through repetition and reflection
- Working on live issues to build confidence and maintain relevance (those difficult conversations turn out to be nowhere near as scary as you thought)
- Really emphasising the ways that you listen and include people
These may sound simple, but they can be hard to master. Like learning to drive a car, you get better at them through practice.
The one simple tip for being a more effective leader
If we were to give you one tip for being a better, more effective leader, it would not be “learn to listen,” it would be “learn how to make people feel heard.”
A great example of this was when we worked with a newly appointed Dean of a faculty who felt out of their depth, and who had been told that they needed to change their leadership style. This caused them a real crisis of confidence. However we agreed that trying to change style was a really bad idea. How can you be anything other than who you are?
The answer, and the trick, is to work out how to lead by playing to your strengths. This person was brilliant at listening and making time for people – they did this by having lots of 15 minute one-to-one meetings. (To be fair, they also had an amazing executive assistant who was a brilliant gatekeeper.)
At the end of their tenure the Dean had delivered a reorganisation without any resistance. The potential conflict evaporated, principally because they had put so much effort into listening to people so that they felt heard and empowered.
It reminds me of a quote, [I don’t remember who it was by – do you know?] comparing two people, it goes something like this:
When you are with one of them, you leave the conversation in no doubt that they are the smartest person in the room, but when you spend 10 minutes with the other one, they leave you in no doubt that you are the smartest, most interesting person in the room.
If any of this resonates, or if you’re taking steps to support leaders to create an empowering culture, we’d love to hear how you’re getting on.
At Then Somehow we help universities and institutions build emotional literacy, increase empathy, and help you see the world differently, giving you practical tools to shift the stuff that’s stuck.
If you’d like to discuss how we can help your organisation develop leaders and perform better, get in touch here.