Let me ask you, what do you believe are the most important leadership competencies in this age of uncertainty? It’s a question that’s been grappling us for ages and countless studies have been published, trying to reach some level of consensus over this elusive subject.
One of the most well-known ones, a study of 195 leaders from more than 30 global organizations, published by the Harvard Business School in 2016 (yet still very relevant to current times), suggests five major themes of competencies that strong leaders exhibit:
- High ethical standards and providing a safe environment
- Empowering individuals to self-organize
- Promoting connection and belonging among employees
- Open to new ideas and experimentation
- Committed to the professional and intellectual growth of employees
Many of these seem intuitive. However, the study highlights that they are, in fact, difficult for leaders to master because – and this is important – to do so would require us to act against our nature. In short, in trying to change our leadership thinking and behaviour, we face a difficult dilemma.
Let’s take an example – empowering others to self-organise could be argued to be an essential leadership competence, in adapting to new terrains. While there is mounting evidence of the many benefits of empowered as well as self-directed teams, we have not ‘moved the dial’ on this one, over the past decade (and possibly longer). You see, within a leader’s mindset lies a dilemma – a difficult choice we present ourselves with, between two, less than optimal, choices and unless we can resolve this dilemma, no amount of effort or good intention on our part would achieve the desired shift in our behaviour.
In this particular case, empowering others to self-organise may hide an underlying belief that many leaders hold – that power is a zero-sum game – if I give it away, the receiver gains and I no longer have such power to exercise. Hence, while I might believe that empowering others to self-organise is the right thing to do and that it would provide many benefits to the receiver as well as for the business – as a leader, I am likely to be quite reluctant to give away such power, as I would then have to face the consequences of inevitable mistakes and perhaps some poor judgements, without the power to yield in ‘correcting’ such a situation. It often becomes a lose-lose situation.
There is a third and better way here. Dilemmas are often a product of our perspective of the world. We may have formed the view, based on prior experience, that yielding power is a zero-sum game – an immovable quantity. If we were to employ a different perspective, we may discover that framing the use of power as only one avenue to exert influence, there are in fact countless ways, some more effective in reaching the level of influence we desire in empowering others to self-organise. We could, for example, use our commitment to the professional and intellectual growth of employees to inspire them to self-organise, for them to discover better ways of charting a way forward and to tackle the inevitable setbacks and some uneasy learnings that would come along. The dilemma of either giving power away or retaining it for ourselves – both options clearly sub-optimal, is no longer the organizing logic for our leadership actions and we can now see the dilemma through a new lens, for what it is – nothing more than a limiting belief, which we can outgrow.
The Harvard study has given us benefits well beyond listing the most valuable leadership competencies. It allowed us to see the deeper struggles of leadership and how vital it is for us to gain perspective, to seek a deeper truth about our leadership thoughts and behaviours, and in the process, to recognise that many of our dilemmas are not there to be wrestled with – but rather to outgrow, as we ourselves transform.
Have a good weekend everyone!
The most important leadership competencies according to leaders around the world. By Sunnie Giles, Published in the Harvard Business Review, March 2016.
‘Finding a Third and better way’ is a core principle of our work, and a powerful way to outgrow our leadership dilemmas. From Our Manifesto, Ascent Growth Partners, 2019.