Leadership: Pulled in Different Directions

I often hear the proverbial statement, “those who can do and those who can’t teach.” I enjoy the phrase when it comes up in my classes because I love to watch the expression on students faces when they discover that I wear multiple hats. I run a coaching and consulting practice that engages leaders around the globe and across industries. I teach graduate leadership courses around the globe and locally in southern California.But by far the most challenging leadership role I have is running department inside a manufacturing company.
It is one thing to see the pressures and challenges faced by leaders and create models to help them interpret organizational and personal behavior while they execute on their tactical and strategic plans. It is quite another thing to actually lead a team responsible for the execution of tactical and strategic plans. The work of leadership within organizations often requires that a leader adopt complementary and even contradictory roles to stimulate new efforts while maintaining existing routines.

Organizations are dynamic and complex settings. Leaders have long felt the tension inherent in the diverse roles they are required to assume. Broadly speaking a leader also serves as a manager requiring behavior that moves back and forth between defining a future and the meaning of the present on one hand and enforcing production quotas and policies on the other.  Effectiveness in a managerial/leadership capacity requires integrating these competing roles. Effective leaders overcome the tendency to see leadership behaviors in an either/or fashion. Instead they engage competing or contradictory roles as part of a tool kit of behavior that enables them to address the multiple and competing demands of the organization.

The recognition that leaders must engage in both management and leadership roles has only recently been measured by researchers. In popular writing leadership and management activities are often framed as competing roles with one or the other disparaged as somehow less effective. Research indicates that they are symbiotic roles that engage various behaviors. Research suggests that leaders who are able to diversify their behaviors across competing values show the behavioral complexity needed to better meet the demands faced by their organization. To the extent a leader or manager is able to diversify their behaviors across these competing values they are said to have a behavioral repertoire.

Recognizing that a leader or manager needs a broad repertoire of behaviors has lead me to help leaders/managers build a perspective that complements both disparate roles and divergent perspectives in a way that provides a more accurate picture of what makes success in organizational leadership and management. So how is this behavioral repertoire developed?

First, recognize that it begins with the recognition of an individual’s unique perspectives and strengths and how these contribute to the organization’s strategic and tactical objectives. The use of behavioral and competency assessments helps leaders set up a baseline understanding of their strong points and find the gaps in behavior or knowledge that diminish potential success.

The process of assessment can be done informally if an organization has clearly defined competencies expected of their positions and if they have mentors who model effective behavioral repertoires. Once a leader identifies their behavioral repertoire he/she has the foundation to assess their capacity to handle complex organizational or situational demands.

A leader or manager’s capacity depends on (1) the range of behavior the individual is capable of performing and (2) the ability to apply various behaviors to divergent situations. Using assessments in tandem with performance coaching enhances the leader’s behavioral repertoire. As a result the organization’s capacity to adjust to market conditions, handle employee relations, meet stakeholder expectations and efficiently produce measurable outcomes increases.

Second, consciously adopt a learning orientation to experience. I remind emerging leaders I work with that feeling pulled in different directions simultaneously is an indication they engaged to the act of leadership. It remains up to them to decide whether they are willing to embrace the tension and develop a learning posture needed to uncover the gaps between their behavior and the behavioral repertoires needed to succeed. Possessing experience is worth very little without active reflection on what the experience teaches.

The highly effective leaders I know deliberately reflect each week on significant interactions and events. I adopted the social research methods introduced in my graduate work i.e., field notes. Each week or after significant interactions I sit down with my notebook and write out a short narrative. Then I look for salient points or themes from the narrative. Then I ask whether a hypothesis (rule of thumb) emerges from the themes that I need to look at further. Finally I ask whether there is a quote or vignette that supports or illustrates the hypothesis. Leaders often work from “rules of thumb” – that is just how the brain works. However, if these rules of thumb are not subjected to critical reflection and testing they may just establish damaging biases and not helpful insights.

Third, find a mentor. Find someone who has the experience and demonstrates a broad behavioral repertoire and ask to spend time with them reviewing your own development. This kind of feedback is invaluable. I recommend that people seek mentors both within and without their organizations. Internal mentors see behavior and its impact first hand and often offer a raw and immediate feedback source.

External mentors see behavior without the political filters sometimes present in an internal mentor and help provide perspective. I have been saved from engaging stupid and self damaging behaviors by talking situations through with a mentor first. Bobby Clinton one of my professors was fond of reminding us of his own truism. “Leadership is complex – complexity is why we need leaders.” Each time we complained of the complexity we faced in our leadership roles he would recite this truism. I decided it was the virtual equivalent of a slap at the back of my head to bring me back from the brink of self pity to the reality of being a leader.

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