Working with high performing leaders is both satisfying and frustrating. In the first instance, if you get them into the right learning space, the anticipation of watching their cognitive abilities in action is exciting and rewarding. On the other hand, get them at the moment when their minds are elsewhere, when they are over-stretched, drained of energy, then they can be extraordinarily disruptive. Rarely do you meet a leader who does not have the propensity to fluctuate between these two extremes. What can be said however, is that the exceptional ones develop a growth mindset that is almost predatory around the consumption of new knowledge. More often than not, they will absorb, digest and then reshape any new ideas into their own context-specific experiences in order to rapidly move from knowledge to experience.

What is so unique about high performers is how quickly their accomplishments are recognised by those immediately around them; there is a real positive and genuine narrative about how they lead, particularly in testing times. What is equally frustrating however, is the all-too-frequent lack of real leadership recognition from organisational systems and processes focused on aligning with current competency frameworks, algorithms of achievement or outdated behavioural frameworks. These focus on distinguishing past achievements rather than promoting uncomfortable current truths. This is why high performers get so frustrated when they see the wrong people getting formally promoted: through their lens, it appears that organisations want those people better able to talk the game than to lead it!

People follow because they connect at an authentic level with their leader (formal or informal) and will respect the fact that leaders have significant, competing, legitimate demands within which they have to position ‘our’ response. Experience shows that people just don’t respect episode-centred leaders – people whose leadership responses are disproportionately shaped by the ‘episode now being played out’. It’s a temporal form of leadership that pays minimal attention to the complex journey that brought us all to here; and makes minimal recognition of the agreed future plans that will take us all to there! Like weather cocks, they regularly change direction the moment a weighty wind wails, because at the core of their mindset, is immediate self-preservation.

The challenge therefore, is for organisations to distinguish their real leaders from those whose approach fluctuates in response to whatever episode they are facing. Again, there is a need to emphasise that leadership should be viewed within the context of a role and not a rank or positional standing. In other words, leadership is something that operates at both formal and informal levels. There is also a requirement to recognise and positively support the need for leaders to be flexible in their approaches to challenge; but what we are discussing here, is something at a far more trustworthy level.  Under the microscope, too many organisational processes, unconsciously encourage the slick progression of those people who retain a sense of self-appreciation that is disproportionate to the needs of those whom they lead.

Testing Environments:

The best way to observe leaders is to evaluate their performance when they are under strain. Why? Because this is when they revert to type and the real manifestation of their beliefs, their values, their approach and their purpose comes to the fore. It is a cliché but it’s true: real leadership is a lonely place and only those who have been there are conscious of the private angst that it has caused them and their love ones. There is nothing more debilitating and energy sapping than being a lone voice against a baying multitude.

How might organisations identify real leadership from those who waver during episodes of challenge? Drawing on experiences when assessing high performers within strenuous circumstance, there are a number of common traits that can be identified. These are purposefully presented as binary alternatives though there is an acknowledgement that leaders may fluctuate across the scale. Nevertheless, high performers will demonstrate sufficient consistency in their interactions with leadership challenges – evidencing both their worth to the organisation and their value to the people they lead.

The Episode-centred leader

If an analysis is carried out on an episode-centred leader it would identify various responses to complexity. Here is how an episode centred leader may approach a high-profile scenario?

1.    This is a difficult issue that challenges the current norm;

  • I need to slow-down until someone creates a position that has widespread agreement.
  • I need to be closely monitoring who is saying what!
  • I need to recognise who holds the balance of power and the best way to embrace this authority.

2.    The person who is creating the issue in question is powerful:

  • I need to be seen to be supportive around the need for change – I don’t want a ‘traditionalist’ label
  • I need to be actively delaying any significant challenge to avoid a personal backlash
  • How do I negotiate my place within the locus of power?

3.    The media are running hot on this topic:

  • What are my three, key sound-bites?
  • What is the best platform for discussion?
  • Is it safe to articulate a position or do I play the role of ‘balanced mediator’?

4.    Now. People seem to be agreeing on a position:

  • There is a real opportunity to generate a well-articulated stance that will enhance the new position.
  • There is a safety in presenting the popularist position.
  • There may be some personal opportunities for a raised profile.

5.    There is substantial collective agreement:

  • I can embrace the mantle as a leader of the new narrative.
  • This is an opportunity to demonstrate positive change and commitment.
  • This is the occasion to label those who are reluctant to change as blockers.
  • How can I utilise this experience as evidence of leadership?

Real authentic leadership

What about those individuals who have developed a more anchored approach to their leadership? Are these leaders just as calculating in their approach to performance outcomes? Experience says, absolutely! The reality is that real leaders double their preparation time in order to ensure that they authentically land their agendas within the legitimate competing complexities they face. Here are how some of their responses may play out.

1.    This is a difficult issue that challenges the current norm: 

  • What do my values say about this situation?
  • What would the people I lead say? Are they right?
  • How am I going to consistently articulate our principles in light of a challenging and hostile background?
  • What do I need to do in order to prepare for an intimidating backlash?

2.    The person who is creating the issue in question is powerful:

  • This voice is powerful, so I need to be careful – what have they previously said about this topic?
  • What alternative positions are people adopting?
  • What values-based alliances are to be created?
  • What context-specific evidence is available (to prove or disprove our position)
  • Where is my personal line in the sand?
  • How can I negotiate a space where our mandate can be dispassionately heard?

3.    The media are running hot on this topic: 

  • Where do my values directly connect with our narrative?
  • What do I need in order to sustain my self-confidence and quieten my excessive self-doubt?
  • How do my professional experiences influence our present positioning?
  • What is the right thing to do?

4.    Now. People seem to be agreeing on a position:

  • How does this new position fit with our mandate?
  • What are the options for continued negotiation?
  • Where might we need to compromise?
  • Who and where are the newly-enlightened sharks. How do I prevent them biting at our people?

5.    There is substantial collective agreement:

  • To what extent do I need to personally own the success – can I be magnanimous in offering the limelight to others?
  • What have I learned from the experience and what will I do differently next time?
  • How can I utilise this experience to coach and mentor others?
  • How can I increase my ability to proactively shape the future mandate of my business rather than reactively responding to another’s positioning?
  • Do I still have the legitimacy to lead?

The current national debate regarding the use of stop and search (police powers) within communities provides us with an excellent example of these differing approaches to leadership – within policing, politics and the media. It does not take too much insight to observe those leaders who are following their values; and those who are consistently adjusting to the political whims of the moment.

In summary:

Leadership is a challenging role and we need not be too critical of those who don’t make the grade. However, individuals place themselves in these positions and as such their performance needs to transcend beyond their personal needs. At the same time, organisations need to fully understand what they value; and then they need to build significance into their systems and processes. If organisations want a particular type of leader then be honest about it. There are too many examples of high-profile organisations engaging in expensive transformational leadership programmes only to find that they consistently make transactional demands of their leaders. Systems and beliefs need to be aligned through organisational procedures.

People don’t just experience real authentic leadership; they feel it at a deep and meaningful level. They know when they are being well led so don’t try and deceive them with self-legitimating selection processes. These are testing times when any high-profile leadership mistake is immediately accompanied by an equally public demand for resignation – usually via a partisan media. Mistakes are signs of life! Leaders need to be predatory around absorbing new ways of thinking and doing in order to quickly move from knowledge to experience. The real danger is that episode-centred leaders emerge at the head of organisations because they have an intense ability to self-survive.

Like never before, organisations need to encourage and support real leaders (both formal and informal) throughout their establishment. These are people who are willing to lead from the front and not just appear as front facing leaders. It’s depressing to watch episode-centre leaders present themselves as radical and progressive – only once, it is personally safe to do so! It’s time to address the leadership requirement.

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