Developing Real Leadership: The 5 BIG Mistakes

The 5 BIG Mistakes that organisations make when developing their leadership talent is costing them in productivity, staff engagement, staff satisfaction and staff retention; never mind the escalating costs of replacing individuals and getting them up to speed to do an effective job.

As you read through these 5 BIG Mistakes — and the problems they create — you’ll immediately be in a position to introduce new strategies to develop your leadership talent, increase engagement and reduce those costs associated with employees being disengaged and leaving your company for “greener pastures”. In fact… continuing to do what the industry has always done will continue to get you the same results. Many of the standard old and tired approaches to leadership development simply don’t work and fail to deliver on organisational (and employee!) expectations. It’s time to take a new approach.

Every organisation wants them and every organisation says they’re committed to building them but how many organisations actually produce great leaders at every level throughout their business?

There are many benefits of having leaders, including self-leaders, at every level of the organisation and some of these include:

  • Proactivity: The ability to set and achieve our own objectives.
  • Accountability: Taking responsibility for our mistakes and making them right.
  • Motivation: That drive that gets us to the office early and keeps us focused throughout the day.
  • Confidence: Being able to present new ideas and having the self-assurance in ourselves and our capabilities.
  • Harmonisation: Being a team player, making decisions and acting in-line with organisational values.
  • Enthusiasm: Having the energy and “juice!” to overcome any challenges we come across.
  • Inspiration: The ability to move people toward a cause that is greater than themselves.
  • Self-awareness: Understanding ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses and taking on the challenge of becoming better.

#1: Employees will pick up leadership skills on the Job…

If you want to be a great leader the best way to become one is to get close to an individual who already demonstrates great leadership practices. Stick with them as much as you can, learn everything you can from them, observe them, especially in the tough times; get to know how they think and how they make decisions. Most importantly, identify those unique character traits that set them apart and work on developing those within yourself.

That’s the ideal way… regrettably most organisations lack great leadership in the first place and there is a shortage of good leadership role-models. Unfortunately, when people are asked about ‘leadership’ they tend to think ‘management’.

Start developing real leadership skills in your organisation now and reverse this trend!

Another unfortunate aspect of organisation culture is that there is no incentive to developing leaders; therefore we are more concerned about getting the job done rather than spending the time needed with our people to help them grow. We are too busy in our day to day jobs to realise that by developing our teams they will experience the confidence to step up and take on many of the day to day tasks that prevent you, a leader of people, from focusing on where you can add value most. Most leaders don’t have the skill-set to do this because they have never experienced it themselves and lack the knowledge of how to apply it to others.

Bill O’Brien, former president of Hanover Insurance in the United States argues that managers must redefine their job. They must give Bill O’Brien up “the old dogma of planning, organizing and controlling,” and realise “the almost sacredness of their responsibility for the lives of so many people.” Managers’ fundamental task, according to O’Brien, is “providing the enabling conditions for people to lead the most enriching lives they can” (Senge, 1992).

Developing a great leadership culture doesn’t happen by chance. It takes time, effort and focus. It takes an understanding of the core leadership competencies and embedding these into the organisational culture where they are measured and reviewed.

Each member of staff should be on a leadership programme with goals and objectives within this space. Cave and Tappin (2008) suggest that to become a complete leader of tomorrow requires apprenticeship. Learning leadership is like a quest — there’s no defined path to success. It’s a personal journey and is different for everyone.

Identify where your leaders are spending their time. Is their focus on developing their people or managing the things their people do?

Believing that employees will learn on the job without a dedicated leadership culture in place will lead to disappointment and frustration for all involved.

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there.” ~ John Buchan

How are you going to start developing your people rather than manage them? What activities can you let go of and give to an aspiring team member to free up your time and contribute to their growth?

What are the leadership objectives for your team members or yourself? Remember, leadership is about leading yourself first! What changes can you make in your life to become a real leader?

#2: Sending employees on 2 or 3 day leadership training courses…

If you’ve ever been on a 2 or 3 day training course I’ve no doubt that you learned a lot of valuable information and that the course was a great buzz… a fantastic cerebral hit! You’ve probably come away from the course motivated to make loads of changes and become a truly great leader.

But what happens when you get back to your desk? Generally there are hundreds of unread emails waiting for your urgent attention. That little light on your phone is blinking away telling you have several phone messages also waiting for your urgent attention. Don’t forget about your team… They’ve been fighting the fires while you were away and now they all need a decision on this and a decision on that. Soon those valuable lessons you learned during those two or three days recede into distant memory and you never get the opportunity to make any real and lasting change.

Organise your training in a series of short hits over a period of weeks to allow time for practice and feedback.

Apart from the inconvenience of being out of the office for two or three days at a time and never really being able to shut off to give the material the attention it deserves, does the core content actually deal with real leadership competencies?

And more to the point, does it help you develop them? I would argue that they don’t and they can’t. Orr and Sack (2009) suggest that no one has time for anything that isn’t going to help them do their job better or faster today. Make sure that you provide skill building opportunities that are just-in-time for on-the-job application.

Real leadership stems from character and the thing with character is that it can’t be developed in a couple of days… no matter how well the material is delivered. When I mentioned above that most courses are a ‘fantastic cerebral hit’ I wasn’t exaggerating. Intellectually they are very stimulating but that’s the problem.

You see, most people know the competencies of great leaders but very few know how to develop those traits that makes them stand apart. If it was as simple as understanding these traits we’d all be leaders but unfortunately this is not the case. It’s not the case because the area of the brain that is involved in, say, developing empathy (a core leadership attribute), is different from the area that is used to understand an intellectual task, such as risk analysis.

A large part of your leadership development should be on creating awareness, developing rapport, influencing and active listening skills.

Developing leadership competencies takes longer, it takes practice and it is largely a personal journey of understanding yourself, your fears and what makes you tick.

Sending employees on a two or three day training course is largely a ‘tick the box’ exercise for most organisations (merely an output) that rarely delivers on helping your people transform into great leaders… the real outcome.

Emotional Intelligence involves the circuitry of the brain that runs between the executive centres (prefrontal cortex) and the limbic system, which governs feelings, impulses and drives. Skills based in the limbic areas, research shows, are best learned through motivation, extended practice and feedback. The limbic brain is a much slower learner [than the neocortex used in intellectual learning] particularly when the challenge is to relearn deeply ingrained habits.

This difference matters immensely when trying to improve leadership skills: At their most basic level, those skills come down to habits learned early in life. If those habits are no longer sufficient, or hold a person back, learning takes longer. Re-educating the emotional brain for leadership learning, therefore, requires a different model from what works for the thinking brain: It needs lots of practice and repetition (Boyatzis, Goleman, & McKee, 2002). That’s why standard two or three day leadership training courses don’t develop true leadership skills.

“Leadership cannot really be taught. It can only be learned.” ~ Harold Geneen

Are you going to continue to be a follower and send your people on the same old “trusted” leadership courses or are you going to be a leader and try something new? Something that will make all the difference!

Do you trust that you have leadership skills in you now or will you rely on a training course to tell you what they are? Are you going to step up and trust yourself… and surprise yourself?

#3: Focussing only on the intellectual competencies…

Management is largely about the ‘head’; it’s planning and control, systems processes, problem solving, written communications, and so on and it’s really important for organisations to have people who excel at these functions. There’s no doubt that in order to be competent at any of the above there is a certain level of intelligence (IQ) needed. However, this is management.

Leadership, on the other hand, is all about the heart; it’s feelings, it’s emotions, it’s connectedness, our sense of respect and values. It’s about being aware of ourselves and being able to understand others. These competencies are much more intangible and are often referred to as ‘soft-skills’… they’re called this because they’re much harder to grasp. People who exhibit these skills generally have a high Emotional Intelligence (EQ).

Real leaders, and people who are, in general, happier in life, have a high level of EQ. An example of some of the research on the importance of EQ as a predictor of success is the Sommerville study, a 40 year longitudinal investigation of 450 boys who grew up in Sommerville, Massachusetts. Two thirds of the boys were from welfare families, and one-third had IQ’s below 90.

However, IQ had little relation to how well they did at work or in the rest of their lives. What made the biggest difference was childhood abilities such as being able to handle frustration, control emotions, and get along with other people (Snarey & Vaillant, 1985 cited by C. Cherniss, 2000).

Measure key soft-skills in all performance reviews — the application and measurement of these will be different for leaders and for staff.

If we are to manage things and lead people we must be able to deal with the whole person but firstly we must be able to deal with ourselves, to manage our thoughts and our emotions. We must learn to ‘respond’ rather than react. The very word [empathy] seems unbusinesslike, out of place amid the tough realities of the marketplace… Rather, empathy means taking employee’s feelings into thoughtful consideration and then making intelligent decisions that work those feelings into the response (Boyatzis, Goleman, & McKee, 2002).

To help develop leadership competencies within an organisation is it importantValues-Road-Sign to measure the softer skills and adherence to organisational values in a similar manner to the harder skills that normally determine the objectives of a role.

What are your organisational values and what are the behaviours associated with these? How can they be measured and, if an employee is not living up to them, what professional development is available to them?

It is not possible to leave our emotions at the door when we walk into the office. Human beings are emotive creatures and the decisions we make are largely driven by the emotional centres of the brain. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has shown that it is impossible to make a purely intellectual decision without involving those areas that are associated with “gut” responses, empathy and emotional intelligence (Caceda, Gilkey, & Kilts, 2010).

If people do not share a common vision, and do not share a common business reality in which they operate, empowering people will only increase warning-sign11organisational stress and the burden of management to maintain coherence and direction (Senge, 1992). Deepening awareness of personal and corporate ethics and values will enable managers to make decisions and take actions in a consciously principled manner. It is increasingly important that managers model ethics and values to reinforce the organization’s standard of conduct. (Orr, & Sack, 2009).

“Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration-of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.” ~ Lance Secretan, Industry Week, October 12, 1998

How can you become more ‘emotionally intelligent’ in your work environment? What simple steps can you take to draw out the best in your people… and in yourself?

How can you become more in tune with your employees’ emotions? How can you help them overcome a challenging time they might be facing to enable to move past it and perform at their best?

#4: Not having a clear development plan for each leader…

For most people who want to develop their career they would look at the qualifications needed to excel in that role. For example, if I was a junior project manager I might focus on getting a PRINCE2 qualification or work towards gaining the points needed to sit the Project Management Institute (PMI) exam and gain accreditation. However, what does a development plan look like for a leader?

“Self-development correlates with performance and potential at the manager level though it is not perceived to be important. Being skilled at self-development involves a strong commitment to self-improvement and active effort toward using strengths and making up for weaknesses. Managers tend to be average at this, and we know that it is moderately difficult to develop. However, the simple act of acknowledging the value of self-development can provide managers with more opportunities to put this critical skill into practice” (Orr, & Sack, 2009).

Because leadership is primarily associated with honing our soft-skills the approach is a little different. Firstly, as mentioned above, developing leadership competencies is largely a personal journey. There are five steps to this process and I would like to concentrate on the first two in this section of the paper.

The first step on the journey is to create a vision of what type of leader we want to be. What are the attributes, the competencies, the characteristics and the behaviours we want to exhibit? The next step is to develop an accurate awareness of our strengths and our development opportunities… and this is where most people fall down. As human beings, we are very unconscious to ourselves and often have a skewed picture of who we think ourselves to be and who others think we are. Our delusions become a serious liability when we need to change (Goldsmith, & Reiter, 2007). A study of CEOs of health services companies by Eric Harter, CEO of Health Care Partners in Lexington, Kentucky, found that self-awareness of leadership abilities was greatest for CEOs of the best performing companies and poorest for CEOs of the worst performers (Boyatzis, Goleman, & McKee, 2002). The decisions made by self-aware people generally mesh with their values and therefore, they more often find their work energizing (Boyatzis, et al, 2002).

So how do we develop a deeper awareness of ourselves? Under normal circumstances it’s difficult because our subconscious, our ego(s), protect us from anything that may challenge our sense of identity. Change rarely comes from hearing harsh feedback from our boss, it rarely comes from being passed over for promotion. To create lasting change, awareness needs to come from within ourselves and developing such an awareness (and being able to take on feedback) is half the battle to becoming a truly great leader.

Therefore, every leadership development programme must involve a heavy component of creating self-awareness in the individual before any lasting change can occur.

“Absolute identity with one’s cause is the first and great condition of successful leadership” ~ Woodrow Wilson

Does your leadership development plan include improving on the critical areas of leadership such as self-awareness? Are leadership competencies part of your (and your team’s) performance measurements? What do these look like?

How do take on feedback? Do you recognise the different types of feedback you are receiving? Some are more subtle than others… Are you aware of your values and do these align with your organisation?

# 5: Leadership strategy is not aligned with business strategy…

The biggest impact on both an organisation’s current business strategy and on the business futures it needs to create is the way a leader leads his/her team… and the way his/her successor leads their teams (Berger, Carrasco, Madala, & Painter, 2011).

There needs to be a very clear vision for the organisation and every leader should be able to articulate that vision and the strategy proposed to achieve it. Every leader should be able to demonstrate how what they are doing on a day to day basis moves the organisation a little closer to achieving its strategy.

Every team member should also know how, by what they do, they contribute to the overall benefit of the team and the organisation. They should know that they are more than a cog in the wheel and that what they do is important. It’s more than about ‘punching the clock’ at the beginning and the end of a day; it’s about contributing and having a sense of satisfaction in what they do.

And finally, organisations should have a clear picture of what their business strategies should be in 1, 3 or even 15 years out and identify the skills and leadership traits that will be needed a) to get there and b) to maintain momentum and continued growth when it does get there.

According to Orr and Sack (2009), “Creativity and Innovation Management are two skills that we know correlate with high performance, but these have decreased in both skill and perceived importance since 2003. In order to be competitive, it’s time to move out of crisis management and begin to value innovation and the creative process once again. These skills won’t be luxuries — they will be critical success factors and possibly a matter of survival for organizations in the next couple of years.”


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