What is leadership really, and how do you measure it?
In the early 1950s, Grace Hopper worked as a mathematician at the Eckert-Mauchley Computer Corporation. At the time, programming a computer meant coding in machine language, which used only numbers and was incredibly tedious. Recognizing that humans tend to think in terms of language rather than numbers, Hopper saw that machine language coding was impractical. So she and her team set about writing the first English-language compiler: a program that translates text commands into the numerical instructions a computer can understand. Hopper’s insight and achievements laid the groundwork for all modern programming languages, several of which run the device you are using to read this article.
Grace Hopper’s example shows us what great leaders do: see the world for what it could be, then make that world a reality. While Hopper’s contribution led to the reinvention of an industry, one need not achieve such heights to lead. The leader’s aim is simply to move the people they work with toward a better outcome. This is equally true of leaders at every level of an organization, from CEO to middle manager to individual contributor. Distilled down to its core, leadership is about facilitating progress.
The key question is how. What is it about effective leaders that allows them to move their teams over mountains, through valleys, and on to the promised land while ineffective leaders succumb to politics, infighting, and their need to be right? The answer to this question is thorny and complex, but to answer it pragmatically, we must boil leadership down to a set of behaviors that help or hinder a leader’s ability to facilitate progress, and then measure those behaviors.
If you think for a moment, you can probably come up with a long list of “things good leaders do.” This list will include some things that are straightforward and practical, like “Respond promptly to text messages.” It may also include more abstract abilities that seem more like wizardry than leadership, like “Keep 20 people who hate each other working toward the same goal.”
A comprehensive set of leadership behaviors is a framework for measuring a leader’s effectiveness. To make this framework a useful tool for growth, you need a variety of perspectives. Think of these perspectives as characters in a short story. There is a protagonist, the leader, who understands their behavior from the first-person perspective — “I am open to negative feedback.” The leader’s colleagues also give their input. They hold a variety of second-person perspectives — “You are actually not that open to negative feedback,” or “You are only open to negative feedback if you are in a good mood.”
The story contains all of the first and second-person perspectives. When those perspectives are at odds, the leader may hire a coach. This adds a new character to the story, and a new perspective. A coach is like an omniscient narrator. They see what the leader sees and what the leader’s colleagues see. But they also draw from their experience working with many leaders at many organizations, from their own experience as a leader, and from their training. This gives the coach the ability to highlight themes in the story that the leader may be unaware of, and to provide valuable insight that helps the leader grow more quickly over time.
There’s a name for a leadership story like this: a 360 review. At Torch, a leadership development organization that I co-founded, we built our leadership assessment using the 360 format because it allows our coaches to quickly close the gap between what a leader knows and what their colleagues know about them.
To develop our assessment, we closely observed the behavior of hundreds of leaders that our coaches worked with in the tech sector and beyond. We looked at what they did well when their teams progressed, and at what they did poorly when their teams stagnated. The resulting set of behaviors fit well with two influential theories of leadership.
The first is Authentic Leadership Theory. It’s based on the simple idea that by increasing their self-awareness, leaders become firmly rooted in who they are. That may sound like a self-help cliché, but here’s why it’s important: A leader’s growing self-awareness gives them insight into how they think about and react to their environment, and this awareness quickly becomes apparent to their colleagues. Their high degree of awareness helps authentic leaders know where they are strong and where they are weak. They are true to their values and unburdened by the expectations of others. Consequently, there is no one “right” way to lead authentically; there are as many ways as there are leaders willing to stand in their true nature.
The second influential model relevant to our assessment is Transformational Leadership Theory. While authentic leadership focuses on being true to the self, transformational leadership emphasizes inspiring by articulating a resonant vision that others can rally around. Both authentic and transformational leaders connect their colleagues to work that is more about personal meaning and contribution to a greater good than salary and benefits.
Based on observations of hundreds of coaching interactions and informed by these theories, the Torch Leadership Assessment measures the three primary domains and eleven sub domains depicted below.
Adaptability. Nothing goes according to plan and unexpected threats arise without warning. Adaptable leaders roll with the punches. They change course when necessary. And because they are open to re-evaluating their beliefs and assumptions, they don’t rigidly adhere to any one plan or direction.
Integrity. Leaders have integrity to the extent that they are honest, reliable, and emotionally mature. High integrity leaders fulfill commitments, own up to their mistakes, and maintain their composure under stress. Leaders with poor integrity have not earned the trust of their teams and may follow their own hidden agenda or exhibit inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
Execution. Leaders who execute well translate their vision into reality by clearly communicating expectations and defining roles, holding team members accountable, and by setting goals that are specific, measurable, and achievable. Their colleagues know who is working on what, when it is due, and what they need to do to be successful. Low execution leaders create an environment in which nothing is well defined, leading to confusion, blame, and disengagement.
Conflict Management. Conflict is awkward, and few leaders have received training on how to resolve conflict in a way that builds trust and strengthens teams. Skilled managers of conflict intervene quickly before disagreements escalate, they work against the natural tendency to avoid what is uncomfortable, and are diplomatic in facilitating difficult conversations. Poor conflict managers don’t intervene until simmering tensions boil over. As a result, their limited ability to resolve conflict is overwhelmed by the strong emotions that emerge in a crisis.
Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. This skill may seem more relevant to kindergarten than the workplace, but consider what it’s like to work with an unempathic leader. They tend to interrupt colleagues during conversation, demonstrate little curiosity about others’ perspectives, and ignore the effects of their behavior on those around them.
Mentoring. Renown personality psychologist (and my graduate advisor) Dan McAdams wrote extensively about generativity, a commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations. In a leadership context, generativity is most applicable to the domain of mentoring. Excellent mentors help others progress in their careers, they delegate challenging and engaging work, and perhaps most importantly, they treat the reasonable mistakes of others as learning experiences.
Group Facilitation. According to Aristotle, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Yet this is only true if the parts play well together, and that’s why group facilitation matters. Leaders who do this well build consensus, they foster an environment where new perspectives and novel ideas are explored, and they invite others to disagree with them. Poor group facilitators tend to railroad others into adopting their point of view, make decisions unilaterally, and surround themselves with “yes people.”
Domain Expertise. This is a broader construct than simply having the necessary skill in operations, marketing, or sales to be effective. It’s about understanding the competitive landscape and the relative strengths of your company versus those of your competitors. Domain experts also use data to inform their decisions whenever possible. In contrast, leaders with limited domain expertise will disregard data and are more likely to make decisions aimed at reducing their anxiety.
Inspiration. Leaders who inspire create a sense of excitement and purpose for the company’s mission. They see what the world will be like if they can bring their vision into reality. Their belief in this vision gives them a passion that is infectious, allowing them to model the values central to the organization, and inspire others to go farther and do more.
Listening. This is arguably the most important domain of leadership. Leaders who can listen are open to negative feedback, and consequently, they have a deeper understanding of their limitations. Most importantly, great listeners respond to negative feedback by changing their behavior for the better. Poor listeners tend to respond defensively to negative feedback. With no outlet for their concerns, the colleagues of poor listeners tend to accumulate resentment, leading to disengagement and turnover.
Vision. Visionary leaders believe in a potential future for their company, and maintain this vision despite setbacks and obstacles along the way. It may be based on what Peter Thiel calls the “contrarian truth” — what a leader “knows” to be possible even though others disagree. Because visionary leaders are focused on what could be, they keep long term goals in mind when decision making, and plan effectively rather than dealing with one crisis after another.
In future articles, I will discuss the primary domains of Character, Relationships, and Influence in greater detail. I invite you to become a reader of the Torch Blog where I share data driven insights on leadership, and where you can also find leadership tips, best practices, and white papers.