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  • Writer's pictureAndy Hind

Three tests of a successful leader... but how do you measure up?

Leadership is a continual course of learning, development, discovery and improvement...or, at least, it should be.

It’s important to remember that, despite what some people might believe about ‘born leaders’, leadership is not innate. Successful leadership involves the mastery of a set of essential practices that must be studied and learned. Moreover, the learning of these practices should be viewed as a continual process – an improvement in the demonstration of one practice should be the starting point of another. With flexibility in your leadership mindset, an absolute resolution to improve and a commitment to your leadership learning, the more you learn and the better you lead. What is essential is that leaders make learning an intentional process and ensure that they are creating time to deliberately move from their performance zone and into their learning zone.

In their Harvard Business Review article, ‘The Best Leaders Are Constant Learners’, Kenneth

Mikkelsen and Harold Jarche say:

Reinvention and relevance in the 21st century... draw on our ability to adjust our way of thinking, learning, doing and being. Leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode...being incomplete.

Errors and imperfections are expected. Mistakes are made but these are THE opportunities to learn. Leaders that are prepared to stay in this learning zone are those that are most receptive to constant learning. They ensure they are intentional in creating the time and space to engage in leadership learning.

Three questions must be addressed by senior leaders, in any school or other organisation:

  • Have we established a clearly identified set of practices for high-impact leadership?

  • To what extent does every leader, in our school/organisation, know and understand these practices (and how do we know)?

  • How are we creating suitable and worthwhile opportunities for every leader to study and learn these practices?

The starting point must be the identification of a set of essential leadership practices, which should not be mistaken for the competencies of an effective leader. A set of 7, or perhaps 9, practices that are understood by all leaders. What should never be underestimated is the complexity of each of these practices.

'Leadership is one of the most observed but least understood phenomenon on earth'. (James Macgregor Burns)

One such practice might be... the continual improvement in the performance of those I lead. Every leader has a responsibility for ensuring the continual increase in the human capital of those colleagues they are responsible for leading. With this practice in mind, leaders, at any level of an organisation, face 3 tests which determine their success and level of effectiveness within their role.

These three tests…or perhaps principles, are:

  1. An effective leader focuses on continuous improvement...looking to create a better world. They see leadership as being problematic and they embrace the challenge of creating solutions to increasingly complex issues. A manager works within the status quo whereas a leader challenges the status quo. An effective leader will always be asking ‘Why are we doing what we are doing in the way we are doing it?’. Critically, an effective leader will ensure they are making time to analyse, evaluate and measure impact vs investment with regard to the systems and processes designed to increase human capital of colleagues.

  2. An effective leader recognises that their primary role is to unlock potential in others…to increase the human capital of those they lead. A successful leader appreciates that leadership is a relationship that leads to improvement and that at the heart of this relationship is influence. An effective leader will be aware of which type of influence they rely on and which type is most effective in different situations. Leaders will rely on 3 types of influence:

    • The influence of power. At times, a leader will need to call on their hierarchical authority and use their power to ensure all colleagues are continually moving forward. In other words, there may be times when a leader will have to ‘make’ colleagues do something. We can engage those we lead in discussions and negotiations but, at the end of the day, a leader has the responsibility to make decisions.

    • The influence of manipulation. When not needing to rely on power, a leader might choose manipulation as a primary form of influence. Generally speaking, the word ‘manipulation’ is frowned on and, therefore, we often use another word which means exactly the same…motivation! Motivation is a positive form of manipulation and will certainly be a key form of influence for any leader who is focusing on unlocking the potential of those they lead.

    • The influence of inspiration. The final form of influence and, by far, the most powerful, is inspiration. A leader must be prepared to ask themselves ‘how am I behaving and what impact are my behaviours having on those I lead’. What is it that colleagues see, in their leader, that results in them willingly wanting to follow this person?

3. An effective leader is a courageous leader. They will see their role as doing the right thing, even when doing the right thing isn’t always easy…or popular. They are prepared to challenge directly but, in doing so, will ensure that colleagues appreciate that this challenge is coming from a good place…assuming good intentions.

A final note...

When considering these 3 tests and the practices of effective leadership, a leader must also be prepared to continually question their own self-awareness. Without deep self-awareness, a leader is likely to fail in seeing patterns in their own behaviours and practices. This, in turn, can negatively impact on all the leader does, see, say and hear. A recent Harvard Business Study survey found that 95% of employees believed that they had worked with at least one leader who demonstrated ‘ a complete lack of insight into how they came across’. Leaders with low self-awareness can create professional cultures in which colleagues feel psychologically unsafe and in which there are low levels of trust and a decreased motivation for doing the job.

The path to authentic self-awareness is through the eyes of others. Effective leaders will prioritise a focus on increasing their own self-awareness by adopting and developing processes for regularly soliciting feedback from those they lead. Be it formally or more informally, they will ensure they have created regular opportunities to seek the views of their colleagues around leadership strengths and weakness.

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