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The Work of Leaders in Leadership

Leadership has been studied for centuries, and has been proven very difficult to grasp what makes a “good leader”. Trait theory examines personality traits that identify important strengths and tend to predict leadership outcomes. Some of these traits include age (older), physicality (tall), gender (male), and status. But that theory gets debunked quickly when considering people like Joan of Arc and Napoleon. Situational leadership theories posit that leadership is contextual, and that a leader must shift relative to the situation requiring different but specific behaviours.

In the latter half of the 21st-century leadership theory moved beyond the power and authority paradigm (command and control) to more empowerment theories. The command and control power-based leadership was defined as transactional, i.e. reward for compliance. The reverse side of this coin is transformational leadership, seen from an empowerment paradigm where power emanates from followers and is shared. Examples of this theory include Servant and Distributive. Because all these theories demonstrate some level of accuracy in their analysis of successful leadership, the “right” leadership model is extremely hard to pin down.

The “Doing” of Leadership

In their book “The Work of Leaders; How Vision, Alignment, And Execution Will Change The Way You Lead” (2013), Straw, Scullard, Kukkonen, and Davis move away from theory and offer leaders a simple structure that captures the complexity of contemporary leadership. What leaders do – the actual work that really matters – is summarized in what they refer to as the VAE model: Vision”, Alignment, Execution”. Here is the “Work of Leaders” Overview.

The Crafting of a Vision – Imagining an improved future state that the group will make a reality through its work

Here’s an interesting concept; mankind is the only animal that thinks about the future (Gilbert, 2006). So if we do think about the future, and place that thinking in a workplace context, visioning is critical to a leaders work. A lack of vision creates confusion, lowers morale and trust, and impacts interactions between staff and customers. Straw, et al. start with the assumption that visioning is not one leader’s work, but every leaders work. Visions are crafted to inspire, to reimagine, to provide purpose in our working lives.

In the model above, Vision starts with Exploration by remaining open and prioritizing the big picture. Patrick Lencioni, in his book “The Advantage” (2012) suggests organizations ask six critical questions about themselves that speak to prioritizing the big picture. They are:

1. Why do we exist?
2. How do we behave?
3. What do we do?
4. How will we succeed?
5. What is most important, right now?
6. Who must do what?

In order for a vision to be bold, it must be adventurous. “Protect the house” by playing it safe is not a bold vision. It reinforces mediocrity and allows people to shrink as opposed to stretch. In order to make your vision bold, ask “what is the worst that could happen” or “what is the best that can happen? Finally, under Exploration, test your assumptions by looking outside your organization for fresh perspectives and approaching trusted colleagues one on one with your ideas. This will give you a good barometer of your bold vision and how it may be tweaked to gain stronger buy-in.

Speaking of leadership, we cover five tips to enhance leadership listening

Building Alignment – Getting to the point where everyone in the group understands, and is committed to, the direction of the organization

In its simplest terms, Building Alignment means gaining buy-in on your vision across the organization. A simple statement – a complex challenge! This means ensuring that each and every person understands their role in making the vision a reality. This must be done with deliberation, time, and commitment by leaders; to not simply expect all employees will embrace the vision put before them. A lack of alignment causes workarounds, passive-aggressive behaviour, and perhaps even outright attempts to sabotage the vision. By taking the time and the energy to build alignment, leaders will conserve time and wasted energy trying to undo efforts misaligned with their vision.

There is a delicate balance in communicating a vision, from too much information to not enough information. As the crafter of the vision it can be easy to assume that employees already understand the intent or purpose of your vision, or over communicate by sharing every small but irrelevant detail in communicating the vision going forward. This is more art form than science. Here are some tips to communicate your vision with clarity:

  • Present your vision in a succinct, powerful, and structured message – eight words or less if possible
  • Be straightforward and transparent – put yourself in the listener’s shoes
  • Use visuals and metaphors if and where possible
  • Explain not only the vision but the “why” of the vision

Is your “Why” compelling? Let our journey inspire yours! Learn more about it here.

Once the vision has been communicated, a next and important step is dialogue amongst those who are most impacted by the vision. Dialogue is different than discussion. Dialogue is a two-way communication, not an “I talk and you listen” scenario. Exchanging perspectives with employees throughout the organization can offer great insight into how this vision may be perceived internally by employees and externally by customers and suppliers. Think of the acronym SHU – Seen, Heard, and Understood. People simply want to have their opinions heard and respected. Most people are not naïve to believe that every opinion they share will translate to a shift in the organization’s vision, but they can at least feel that their voice was important.

If you want to truly understand if people “get” your vision, be receptive by asking them to paraphrase what the vision is in their own words, and how their work directly impacts the achievement of that vision. Perhaps ask employees to come up with a rallying cry that can be embraced throughout the entire organization. This will give you great insight into how well your vision was communicated.

Because words shape worlds, leaders must express their vision with language that galvanizes people and have them become emotionally committed. It is not a statement of fact or statistics, but rather a painted picture of a future state that excites and motivates employees to achieve that desired state. Examples of compelling expression include storytelling, quotations from others or a visual image that breathes life into the vision. As role models, a leader’s posture, demeanour (body language), mood, and choice of words will do more to demonstrate their commitment to the vision than any words posted on a bulletin board.

Championing Execution – ensuring that the conditions are present for the imagined future to be turned into a reality

While leaders may not necessarily be involved in the day-to-day implementation of the vision, they do own the responsibility to ensure that people have the resources they need to deliver the best results toward that vision. This includes such things as strategies, the right people in the right roles, and a culture of curiosity to keep the vision driving forward. Leaders must be the champions of executing the vision. Words such as defend, advocate, lobby, cheerleader, booster are all words that leaders must embrace to build and maintain momentum of the process. When employees see leaders champion the execution of the vision, it speaks to a tangible sign of their commitment. This is not just talk, this is “walking the walk” and demonstrating momentum beyond aspiration to actual reality. The phrase “beyond the realm of possibility” can be shifted to “within the realm of possibility.”

“Leadership is not a destination, leadership is what happens in the next 10 minutes.” This is a famous quote by Tom Peters and speaks to the importance of continuous momentum and establishing a sense of urgency. Being driven means using appropriate deadlines that are tied to an outside commitment (conference, AGM), and keeps the work at a pace that keeps momentum driving forward. Instead of waiting till next week or until someone comes back from vacation, momentum means we don’t wait around, we keep moving forward.

When the question is posed “who owns the burden of success?”, the answer should be everyone. Initiative, or initiating action means that everyone takes responsibility for change when change is needed. This means that leaders must not only develop the habit of stepping back and asking one of the original questions posed by Lencioni, “what are the most important things we could be doing to make a difference right now?”, but also create a culture that recognizes proactivity in looking for new initiatives as part of everyone’s job.

Now that we have desire to achieve the vision and momentum to move it forward, is critical to provide a plan, a blueprint for moving forward that ensures the right people will be doing the right things at the right time. This gets everyone on the same page and provides the common foundation for teams to rely on. As leaders it is not necessarily to craft every detail of the plan but to involve employees in the planning process. This translates into their support of the work they will be doing and increases the reliability of the plan itself. While the plan is iterative, it does need to stay laser focused on the ultimate vision. Keeping abreast of how the plan is unfolding knowing there will be hurdles and challenges will increase the likelihood that the team will produce consistent and desired results.

Looking for more specific leadership training? Learn more about our leader training options here.

In any organization there will be the quick “doers” and the slow “analysers”. A good leader will create an environment for respectful and timely communication with team members that allows for in-depth analysis of issues or challenges that may be faced in the execution of the plan. This allows the teams to look at both what might go wrong, but also what could go right. Are new opportunities in front of us as a result of our work, and how can we capture this new opportunity?

As the champions of execution, leaders must offer continuous feedback to their teams to ensure momentum is moving in the right direction. But is feedback necessary or simply discretionary? There are many examples of leaders who only want to hear good news stories, and hesitate to address issues and challenges in front of them. Feedback needs to address two aspects: addressing problems when necessary and offer praise when called for. One sensitive aspect of addressing problems is to focus on the problem itself and not the person. Keep everyone’s eye on the prize by looking for a solution and not to lay blame. Acknowledge the issue, ask what went wrong, look for solutions, and recognize that continual growth is a part of success. On the flipside, it is often a reflection that leaders tend to see what’s wrong more than what they see is right. In research done by Straw et al., leaders “don’t always seem aware of aware of contributions we make”. It is human nature to feel appreciated and valued. But praise must not be orchestrated, it must be authentic and genuine. Get involved with your teams, and look for opportunities to both address a problem and offer praise.

To Conclude

In any organization there will be the quick “doers” and the slow “analysers”. A good leader will create an environment for respectful and timely communication with team members that allows for in-depth analysis of issues or challenges that may be faced in the execution of the plan. This allows the teams to look at both what might go wrong, but also what could go right. Are new opportunities in front of us as a result of our work, and how can we capture this new opportunity?

As the champions of execution, leaders must offer continuous feedback to their teams to ensure momentum is moving in the right direction. But is feedback necessary or simply discretionary? There are many examples of leaders who only want to hear good news stories, and hesitate to address issues and challenges in front of them. Feedback needs to address two aspects: addressing problems when necessary and offer praise when called for. One sensitive aspect of addressing problems is to focus on the problem itself and not the person. Keep everyone’s eye on the prize by looking for a solution and not to lay blame. Acknowledge the issue, ask what went wrong, look for solutions, and recognize that continual growth is a part of success. On the flipside, it is often a reflection that leaders tend to see what’s wrong more than what they see is right. In research done by Straw et al., leaders “don’t always seem aware of aware of contributions we make”. It is human nature to feel appreciated and valued. But praise must not be orchestrated, it must be authentic and genuine. Get involved with your teams, and look for opportunities to both address a problem and offer praise.

Questions to Ponder:

1. Have you crafted a vision for your organization, and can you succinctly and powerfully articulate that vision in eight words or less?
2. Do your team members know what your vision is? Could they paraphrase the vision back in a way that demonstrates their understanding of the vision?
3. Do you have an open dialogue with your teams where perspectives can be shared and exchanged?
4. Are you the cheerleader of your vision and do you demonstrate that to your teams through your actions?
5. Do you have a well thought out plan with built in checkpoints for feedback and analysis?
6. Do your employees know they are appreciated and valued?

References

Davis, B., Kukkonen, S., Scullard, M., Straw, J. (2013). The Work of Leaders; How Vision, Alignment, And Execution Will Change The Way You Lead. Wiley.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. Knopf, Doubleday Publishing Group.

Lencioni, P. (2012). The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. Germany: Wiley.

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Leadership has been studied for centuries, and has been proven very difficult to grasp what makes a “good leader”. Trait theory examines personality traits that identify important strengths and tend to predict leadership outcomes. Some of these traits include age (older), physicality (tall), gender (male), and status. But that theory gets debunked quickly when considering people like Joan of Arc and Napoleon. Situational leadership theories posit that leadership is contextual, and that a leader must shift relative to the situation requiring different but specific behaviours.

In the latter half of the 21st-century leadership theory moved beyond the power and authority paradigm (command and control) to more empowerment theories. The command and control power-based leadership was defined as transactional, i.e. reward for compliance. The reverse side of this coin is transformational leadership, seen from an empowerment paradigm where power emanates from followers and is shared. Examples of this theory include Servant and Distributive. Because all these theories demonstrate some level of accuracy in their analysis of successful leadership, the “right” leadership model is extremely hard to pin down.

The “Doing” of Leadership

In their book “The Work of Leaders; How Vision, Alignment, And Execution Will Change The Way You Lead” (2013), Straw, Scullard, Kukkonen, and Davis move away from theory and offer leaders a simple structure that captures the complexity of contemporary leadership. What leaders do – the actual work that really matters – is summarized in what they refer to as the VAE model: Vision”, Alignment, Execution”. Here is the “Work of Leaders” Overview.

The Crafting of a Vision – Imagining an improved future state that the group will make a reality through its work

Here’s an interesting concept; mankind is the only animal that thinks about the future (Gilbert, 2006). So if we do think about the future, and place that thinking in a workplace context, visioning is critical to a leaders work. A lack of vision creates confusion, lowers morale and trust, and impacts interactions between staff and customers. Straw, et al. start with the assumption that visioning is not one leader’s work, but every leaders work. Visions are crafted to inspire, to reimagine, to provide purpose in our working lives.

In the model above, Vision starts with Exploration by remaining open and prioritizing the big picture. Patrick Lencioni, in his book “The Advantage” (2012) suggests organizations ask six critical questions about themselves that speak to prioritizing the big picture. They are:

1. Why do we exist?
2. How do we behave?
3. What do we do?
4. How will we succeed?
5. What is most important, right now?
6. Who must do what?

In order for a vision to be bold, it must be adventurous. “Protect the house” by playing it safe is not a bold vision. It reinforces mediocrity and allows people to shrink as opposed to stretch. In order to make your vision bold, ask “what is the worst that could happen” or “what is the best that can happen? Finally, under Exploration, test your assumptions by looking outside your organization for fresh perspectives and approaching trusted colleagues one on one with your ideas. This will give you a good barometer of your bold vision and how it may be tweaked to gain stronger buy-in.

Speaking of leadership, we cover five tips to enhance leadership listening

Building Alignment – Getting to the point where everyone in the group understands, and is committed to, the direction of the organization

In its simplest terms, Building Alignment means gaining buy-in on your vision across the organization. A simple statement – a complex challenge! This means ensuring that each and every person understands their role in making the vision a reality. This must be done with deliberation, time, and commitment by leaders; to not simply expect all employees will embrace the vision put before them. A lack of alignment causes workarounds, passive-aggressive behaviour, and perhaps even outright attempts to sabotage the vision. By taking the time and the energy to build alignment, leaders will conserve time and wasted energy trying to undo efforts misaligned with their vision.

There is a delicate balance in communicating a vision, from too much information to not enough information. As the crafter of the vision it can be easy to assume that employees already understand the intent or purpose of your vision, or over communicate by sharing every small but irrelevant detail in communicating the vision going forward. This is more art form than science. Here are some tips to communicate your vision with clarity:

  • Present your vision in a succinct, powerful, and structured message – eight words or less if possible
  • Be straightforward and transparent – put yourself in the listener’s shoes
  • Use visuals and metaphors if and where possible
  • Explain not only the vision but the “why” of the vision

Is your “Why” compelling? Let our journey inspire yours! Learn more about it here.

Once the vision has been communicated, a next and important step is dialogue amongst those who are most impacted by the vision. Dialogue is different than discussion. Dialogue is a two-way communication, not an “I talk and you listen” scenario. Exchanging perspectives with employees throughout the organization can offer great insight into how this vision may be perceived internally by employees and externally by customers and suppliers. Think of the acronym SHU – Seen, Heard, and Understood. People simply want to have their opinions heard and respected. Most people are not naïve to believe that every opinion they share will translate to a shift in the organization’s vision, but they can at least feel that their voice was important.

If you want to truly understand if people “get” your vision, be receptive by asking them to paraphrase what the vision is in their own words, and how their work directly impacts the achievement of that vision. Perhaps ask employees to come up with a rallying cry that can be embraced throughout the entire organization. This will give you great insight into how well your vision was communicated.

Because words shape worlds, leaders must express their vision with language that galvanizes people and have them become emotionally committed. It is not a statement of fact or statistics, but rather a painted picture of a future state that excites and motivates employees to achieve that desired state. Examples of compelling expression include storytelling, quotations from others or a visual image that breathes life into the vision. As role models, a leader’s posture, demeanour (body language), mood, and choice of words will do more to demonstrate their commitment to the vision than any words posted on a bulletin board.

Championing Execution – ensuring that the conditions are present for the imagined future to be turned into a reality

While leaders may not necessarily be involved in the day-to-day implementation of the vision, they do own the responsibility to ensure that people have the resources they need to deliver the best results toward that vision. This includes such things as strategies, the right people in the right roles, and a culture of curiosity to keep the vision driving forward. Leaders must be the champions of executing the vision. Words such as defend, advocate, lobby, cheerleader, booster are all words that leaders must embrace to build and maintain momentum of the process. When employees see leaders champion the execution of the vision, it speaks to a tangible sign of their commitment. This is not just talk, this is “walking the walk” and demonstrating momentum beyond aspiration to actual reality. The phrase “beyond the realm of possibility” can be shifted to “within the realm of possibility.”

“Leadership is not a destination, leadership is what happens in the next 10 minutes.” This is a famous quote by Tom Peters and speaks to the importance of continuous momentum and establishing a sense of urgency. Being driven means using appropriate deadlines that are tied to an outside commitment (conference, AGM), and keeps the work at a pace that keeps momentum driving forward. Instead of waiting till next week or until someone comes back from vacation, momentum means we don’t wait around, we keep moving forward.

When the question is posed “who owns the burden of success?”, the answer should be everyone. Initiative, or initiating action means that everyone takes responsibility for change when change is needed. This means that leaders must not only develop the habit of stepping back and asking one of the original questions posed by Lencioni, “what are the most important things we could be doing to make a difference right now?”, but also create a culture that recognizes proactivity in looking for new initiatives as part of everyone’s job.

Now that we have desire to achieve the vision and momentum to move it forward, is critical to provide a plan, a blueprint for moving forward that ensures the right people will be doing the right things at the right time. This gets everyone on the same page and provides the common foundation for teams to rely on. As leaders it is not necessarily to craft every detail of the plan but to involve employees in the planning process. This translates into their support of the work they will be doing and increases the reliability of the plan itself. While the plan is iterative, it does need to stay laser focused on the ultimate vision. Keeping abreast of how the plan is unfolding knowing there will be hurdles and challenges will increase the likelihood that the team will produce consistent and desired results.

Looking for more specific leadership training? Learn more about our leader training options here.

In any organization there will be the quick “doers” and the slow “analysers”. A good leader will create an environment for respectful and timely communication with team members that allows for in-depth analysis of issues or challenges that may be faced in the execution of the plan. This allows the teams to look at both what might go wrong, but also what could go right. Are new opportunities in front of us as a result of our work, and how can we capture this new opportunity?

As the champions of execution, leaders must offer continuous feedback to their teams to ensure momentum is moving in the right direction. But is feedback necessary or simply discretionary? There are many examples of leaders who only want to hear good news stories, and hesitate to address issues and challenges in front of them. Feedback needs to address two aspects: addressing problems when necessary and offer praise when called for. One sensitive aspect of addressing problems is to focus on the problem itself and not the person. Keep everyone’s eye on the prize by looking for a solution and not to lay blame. Acknowledge the issue, ask what went wrong, look for solutions, and recognize that continual growth is a part of success. On the flipside, it is often a reflection that leaders tend to see what’s wrong more than what they see is right. In research done by Straw et al., leaders “don’t always seem aware of aware of contributions we make”. It is human nature to feel appreciated and valued. But praise must not be orchestrated, it must be authentic and genuine. Get involved with your teams, and look for opportunities to both address a problem and offer praise.

To Conclude

In any organization there will be the quick “doers” and the slow “analysers”. A good leader will create an environment for respectful and timely communication with team members that allows for in-depth analysis of issues or challenges that may be faced in the execution of the plan. This allows the teams to look at both what might go wrong, but also what could go right. Are new opportunities in front of us as a result of our work, and how can we capture this new opportunity?

As the champions of execution, leaders must offer continuous feedback to their teams to ensure momentum is moving in the right direction. But is feedback necessary or simply discretionary? There are many examples of leaders who only want to hear good news stories, and hesitate to address issues and challenges in front of them. Feedback needs to address two aspects: addressing problems when necessary and offer praise when called for. One sensitive aspect of addressing problems is to focus on the problem itself and not the person. Keep everyone’s eye on the prize by looking for a solution and not to lay blame. Acknowledge the issue, ask what went wrong, look for solutions, and recognize that continual growth is a part of success. On the flipside, it is often a reflection that leaders tend to see what’s wrong more than what they see is right. In research done by Straw et al., leaders “don’t always seem aware of aware of contributions we make”. It is human nature to feel appreciated and valued. But praise must not be orchestrated, it must be authentic and genuine. Get involved with your teams, and look for opportunities to both address a problem and offer praise.

Questions to Ponder:

1. Have you crafted a vision for your organization, and can you succinctly and powerfully articulate that vision in eight words or less?
2. Do your team members know what your vision is? Could they paraphrase the vision back in a way that demonstrates their understanding of the vision?
3. Do you have an open dialogue with your teams where perspectives can be shared and exchanged?
4. Are you the cheerleader of your vision and do you demonstrate that to your teams through your actions?
5. Do you have a well thought out plan with built in checkpoints for feedback and analysis?
6. Do your employees know they are appreciated and valued?

References

Davis, B., Kukkonen, S., Scullard, M., Straw, J. (2013). The Work of Leaders; How Vision, Alignment, And Execution Will Change The Way You Lead. Wiley.

Gilbert, D. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. Knopf, Doubleday Publishing Group.

Lencioni, P. (2012). The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. Germany: Wiley.

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