A recent LinkedIn post by a friend of mine gave me pause for thought. Responding to an article exploring the complex challenges of leadership, they joked: “That’s all very well. But where’s the funny cartoon about the difference between leaders and managers?”
This post resonated with me. It neatly captured the over-simplistic view that people are either good or bad leaders, and there’s only one leadership style that works. In my experience, the reality is quite different. As in most aspects of life, a black-and-white view of leadership is far too one-dimensional. What we’re actually dealing with is shades of grey.
Right time, right approach
This isn’t to say that some people aren’t better leaders than others: most of us know this is true from working for people at either end of the scale. But there isn’t one single leadership style that’s universally effective. Instead, there are many different approaches and techniques that leaders can use to successfully motivate, engage, and communicate with their teams, and to get the best out of their people.
Through decades of working in executive assessment, experience has shown that the better leaders have a wider range of tools in their toolkit – and they combine this with the ability to assess rapidly which tool is appropriate in a particular situation, and then apply the right one at the right time.
Which leads us to the age-old question of whether leaders are born or made. While some people inevitably find it easier to become effective leaders, our view is that leadership is a skill that many individuals have the capacity to develop by learning the techniques and how to apply them for optimal effect.
Pinpointing the challenges
When selecting a new leader, it’s critical to understand what the key challenges are for the organisation. The nature of those challenges will help to determine the type of leader they want, and more importantly need.
The temptation for companies is to focus on the generic qualities they assume make for a good leader. Instead businesses should focus on the specific challenges they are facing – and the qualities that are needed to overcome them, rather than taking a more wide-angled view of what’s required.
That might mean, for example, looking for someone who can set a strategy, empower the workforce to make it happen, and oversee operational delivery. But those capabilities really just cover the basic requirements for the job. They’re effectively table stakes for any leader in any business. What’s needed is a more granular, focused approach to leadership qualities that mirrors the business’s most pressing immediate issues and future needs.
A focused approach to identifying leadership qualities and skills?
Take a business that’s going through some form of crisis and requires a rapid turnaround. The leader coming into that situation will need the ability to make assertive decisions and adopt a directive approach in the short term. But that person will need to be able to pull from a different set of skills to lead the business in the longer term once it’s back on an even keel. It comes down to having a range of tools at their disposal – and just as important, knowing which ones to use at any given point.
A further important aspect of a leader’s toolkit is the extent to which they apply their various techniques, dialling the volume up and down as needed. For example, a leader may be highly supportive – a valuable quality, particularly in cases where teams and individuals are going through a difficult time. But if they are so tolerant that they don’t hold people to account, this may become a problem. This applies to all situations – the leader will need to be able to make a balanced judgement about style or technique deployed, and to what extent.
Three principles for finding the right leader with right leadership qualities and skills
Given that leadership is not one-size-fits-all, what should boards think about when setting out to find their next leader? In our experience, they should focus on three things.
The first, as already outlined, is to be as specific as possible about the challenges being faced and the qualities needed to address them. This means understanding the key issues confronting their business, and what the new leader will need to achieve over a given timeframe.
Second, they shouldn’t be tempted to simply look for more of what they already have. In the past, there was a tendency to look for someone who would be a “good cultural fit”. But, over time, this mindset can contribute to a lack of diversity and group think. Far better to look for someone who would complement the existing team. In fact, recruiting a new leader can be an opportunity to drive real culture change.
Third, ensure that they have an objective candidate evaluation process in place that provides a comprehensive understanding of not just what candidates have achieved, but how they have achieved it, and how they behave as a leader.
Tapping into the potential
On a positive note, in our experience, leadership is something that can be learned and developed. Many individuals possess the potential to become effective leaders, given the right experience and opportunity. What’s needed is the intellectual capacity combined with the commitment to learn and develop, and to work at it – and how they do that is down to them.
Where do we come in? Our leadership assessment methodology is specifically designed to evaluate leadership talent, taking into account various factors such as leadership behaviour and capability, future potential, and organisational alignment. Through assessments, companies can effectively evaluate and develop candidates who have the ability to drive the organisation towards its strategic goals.
Unleash leadership potential with Redgrave’s expert leadership assessment