Sunday, June 19, 2011

What I mean when I talk about Leadership

Make no mistake - leadership is a survival skill, no matter what your position.

Yet for something this critical, we really don't spend much time learning formally how to do it. Perhaps we could read the 68,279 books regarding leadership that are currently available on amazon. Or we could casually peruse the 422 million pages on leadership that can be accessed via a google search -or hone it down to the 190 million that return on 'leadership development'.

But probably, most of us won't. This lack of knowledge, so my theory goes, is at the root of a lot of unhappiness and stagnation in the workplace, at all levels of an organization. Very few managers that I’ve encountered are competent let alone effective leaders – or would even know where to go to obtain a different set of skills and tools than those required to be an effective employee. So for the last few years I’ve become pretty obsessed with the anatomy of leadership.

In a recent study that wimlink conducted, I was thrilled to learn that I am not alone in my obsession to understand and learn about leadership - ‘leadership development’ is currently the top priority for 62 of 100 women executives and entrepreneurs that we interviewed (beating out improving communication, entrepreneurship, stress management, taking your career to the next level and more).

When asked to describe a leader that they admired, the top quality cited was Fairness.

Although Communication Skills was the quality that was deemed most critical to have to be an excellent leader (79% viewed this to be critical as opposed to necessary, nice to have or not a leadership quality), when forced to choose the most important leadership quality, more transcendent attributes such as Vision, Ability to Inspire and Sense of Purpose rose to the top. From this, we can learn that women viewed leadership as more than the sum of sound operational and tactical skills, or pure management without something more to mobilize the imagination of those around them.

In contrast, leadership competence was expressed through more tactical traits, such as being ‘Action Oriented’ and ‘Flexible’ – although technical competence was acknowledged to have little to do with leadership competence, with more than half stating that ‘Technical Excellence’ in their chosen field was really only nice-to-have.

Three Key Observations from our Leadership Study:

Communication is the most-chosen quality for effective leadership overall

When forced to pick the one quality that is most important, women chose transcendent qualities such as ‘Vision’, ‘Sense of Purpose’ and ‘Ability to Inspire’ over other qualities such as ‘Integrity’, ‘Hard Working’, ‘Action Oriented’, ‘Takes Responsibility’– revealing that women view leadership as something loftier than the sum of technical and tactical skills and qualities

There is a disconnect in what women value in leaders, and what women rate highly in themselves - when asked to rate themselves, respondents ranked themselves highly on tactical, measurable skills and qualities (such as ‘Hardworking’, ‘Takes Responsibility’, ‘Honesty’, ‘Integrity’), and much lower on transcendent attributes, where they told us the real magic of leadership happens.

Based on (3) above, the biggest opportunity then for current and aspiring leaders is to spend time learning what it takes to rise above the muck of everyday tasks and thinking, to see the landscape and broader opportunities more clearly.

Secondarily, focus can be placed on communication skills in order to be able to mobilize others towards what you see there.

And finally, as all roads lead back to awareness and self development, also remember to take the time to reflect on what you need to do to continue learning and improving, and removing any personal roadblocks.

For further reading, among my favorite books on the topic are Warren Bennis’ On Becoming a Leader, Peter Drucker’s ‘The Effective Executive' and Joanna Barsh’s 'How Remarkable Women Lead' - which remains one of the few books specifically about women and leadership that I’ve read that I’ve found useful, actionable and void of many annoying gendered stereotypes that frequently cause me to slam down books for women in business in frustration.


ChristieC said...

Fantastic communication skills may be the root of "vision", "ability to inspire", and "sense of purpose". Otherwise, great ideas won't be noticed. I think compelling written communication is easier to hone because we have the luxury of editing. However, verbal communications seem harder to fix (tone, pitch, sounding too young, accents etc). Working with a speech coach might be an awesome investment!

Tania Yuki said...

Thanks for the comment Christie - learning how to effectively speak and present I think is a huge part of it. The other thing which I didn't add in the article was that what I've heard time and time again from people in our interviews is that you just can't over-communicate. If in doubt, repeat it again, and again. Even when not in doubt. What may seem to you like frightful repetition is really just the bare minimum required to get your message out there.