I once wrote, “Individuals respond to the organisation in terms of their perceptions of it, the meaning it has for them, the feelings it evokes, the ways in which it is stressful or supporting. It is these perceptions which are the immediate influence on their behaviour and the immediate source of their motivation for role performance” (Power, 1979). This was not a particularly new observation at the time, as it was based on the seminal work of Lewin, Lippitt and White (1939) and later research by Litwin and Stringer (1968). Yet many leaders have still not recognised the importance of this characteristic of the organisations they lead. Consequently, they also remain unaware that these collective perceptions of the organisation, known as ‘organisational climate’, are largely created by their own behaviour. Through the leadership styles (e.g., Boyatzis & McKee, 2005) or leadership practices (Stringer, 2002) they demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate), leaders create the environment in which their staff will be motivated to provide discretionary effort. At the other extreme, leaders may create an organisational climate in which staff become demotivated, discouraged and do the bare minimum or even engage in counterproductive behaviour.
In the years since writing those words, I have had the opportunity to observe leaders from a broad range of organisations in many different countries going about their business. I have seen many leaders participate in well-designed and properly structured assessment centres, spent time with some of them as they took part in a leadership development workshop, and coached a large number on a one-to-one basis for periods of up to three years. These experiences have given me insight into what makes some leaders successful, while others flounder or struggle to perform in the role. In a nutshell, I believe there are five essential characteristics that form the basis of successful leadership: self-image, self-control, socialised power, sustained dialogue and strategic intent.
Effective leaders understand, believe and act upon a view of themselves that says, “I am a leader”. Those in leadership positions who do not believe this of themselves tend to act more tentatively, unsurely, less confidently and with less impact than their more successful counterparts. This inability to assume the total persona of the role has been, in my experience, one of the greatest obstacles for people in leadership positions. Despite their often brilliant track record in jobs that demanded application of their undoubted skills and knowledge, they are unable to make the shift from achievement of goals for themselves to encouraging and empowering others to attain the goals of the organisation. To build the positive self-image necessary for effective leadership performance requires a level of emotional self-awareness to read and react to the cues in our environment. It also entails the ability to accurately assess our strengths and shortcomings, understand what motivates us, and have the self-confidence to learn and grow without hesitancy or insecurity.
Many leaders act on impulse, making decisions and taking action according to their habitual methods of dealing with situations, or reacting quickly in an attempt to solve a problem or to appear confident. The most effective leaders, however, tend to respond to situations rather than react to them. Our bodies react before our minds. So monitoring our body’s reactions is paramount. Part of accurate self-assessment is knowing when we are getting aroused, so we can respond rather than react. Feeling the adrenaline from anger, disappointment or fear, is an important precursor to what may happen next if we do not attend to it. So we need to learn to recognise these signs.
As one leader illustrated recently, “I was amazed at how quickly I could recognise that my intended behaviour would have been counter-productive, could consider a range of options, and decide upon a course of action that would be far more effective. It all seemed to take a nanosecond.” This degree of self-control, which is dependent on accurate self-awareness, allows us more effectively to manage our drives, values, personality traits, moods and preferences to meet the demands of different situations. Lewin, Lippitt & White (1939) and other early psychologists formulated the general principle that our behaviour is a function of ourselves (the person) in interaction with the demands of the world with which we engage (the situation). Rather than requiring us to shut down our emotions or to act in a robotic fashion, exercising self-control enables us to take that split second to ask ourselves: ”What is the most appropriate thing to say and do right now?” In doing so, leaders are able to adapt their styles to the nature of the particular situation and to the person(s) with whom they are interacting to derive maximum benefit for the organisation in relation to its vision and mission.
3. Socialised power
For many, a leadership role is viewed as an opportunity to exercise authority in a way that may belittle or attempt to control others and build the ego of the leadership position-holder. Truly effective leaders create a vision to which others can commit, empower the members of the organisation to work responsibly toward attainment of that vision, hold them accountable for the outcome and acknowledge their efforts through considered recognition, praise and reward. This can be seen as the socialised or resourceful use of power, in contrast to a personalised or self-aggrandising abuse of power (see Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; McClelland, 1975, 1987). Leaders who exercise power in this way help others improve, bring conflict out into the open in a constructive way and help to resolve it for the benefit of all. They find common ground with others, have a network in place when it is time for action and collaborate willingly across boundaries. Their approach to leadership is authoritative, not authoritarian, and they involve people in the work by engagement rather than coercion.
4. Sustained dialogue
It is easy for a leader, especially someone new to the role, to bunker down and focus on understanding and managing the things they need to achieve, just as they did in the roles that brought them to this level in the first place. The best leaders, however, make a point of getting out and about to meet their team and the rest of the staff of the organisation. They create every possible opportunity to speak with their people, not as a friend, but as a senior colleague who is there to encourage, mentor and support them, and to provide the resources and the environment in which they can do their best work. This helps the leader to develop a level of true empathy with those who work for the organisation, so that they are regarded as people rather than cogs in the organisational machine. This improves the quality of performance management, and builds better cooperation and collaboration. People who are skilled in using their ‘social radar’ are better able to observe and listen to others, and seek to understand why they act as they do – something psychologists should be good at, though it is not always the case.
Barriers that operate for many leaders include ignorance of differences, stereotyping of others according to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, colour, gender or other such characteristics, expectations of others, either positive or negative, that can help shape their behaviour (Power, 2017), narcissism, self-centredness and unconscious biases, of which much has recently been written (see, for example, Kandola, 2009). Reflective practice can promote awareness of one’s own biases and how these impact on behaviour and practice.
5. Strategic intent
Leaders typically find themselves in a senior role because they have been high-achievers in their current organisations, or in other organisations. It is reasonable for them to assume, therefore, that they will achieve success in their new role by doing more of the same. This unfortunately generates an attitude of being hands-on, keeping a close eye on others, focusing on the minutiae, to the extent of micro-managing and even taking credit for the team’s successes. Proper leadership involvement is not a bad thing, as it lends itself to the parts of the role that require planning, goal-setting, prioritising and strategising. Having developed the strategy, unfortunately some leaders do not step back to maintain perspective. Rather, they tend to lose perspective in the pursuit of short-term, tactical goals. Effective leaders recognise that they need to keep watch on the big picture, and take a broader and long-term view as they continue to create and articulate a compelling vision. They keep others, and themselves, focused on it to the extent that everything that happens in the organisation can be tied to its overall mission. People understand clearly how what they do on a day-to-day basis contributes to that wider, long-term plan. These leaders derive an unwavering sense of purpose and bring a real passion to it, which in turn, inspires commitment and engagement from others.
Good leaders make the complex simple through strategic intent. People are free to do their best when the strategic choices have been made clear, and this results in a clear connection between chosen activities and outcomes. When colleagues participate in strategy creation, and when strategic intent is made clear, they have less reason to check with the leader and more reason to do their best to reach the goals. Delegation becomes easier and more effective.
Application to leadership roles
These five essential principles can be applied to leadership roles in any organisation, whether it be the largest of global corporations, a not-for-profit staffed entirely by volunteers, or even a professional association such as the Australian Psychological Society. To use the last of these as an example could involve the APS National Office itself as an organisational entity, or could examine the impact of the Society’s leaders on the membership at large, those who help create the culture of psychology in Australia. The latter is, of course, more difficult, because psychologists at work are influenced by many factors, including the organisation for which they work, the social, political, socioeconomic and industrial environment in which they operate or, for some, the challenges of being a sole practitioner.
Whatever the case, the leadership of the APS can support an environment in which all psychologists can thrive, excel, feel supported and believe strongly in the importance of their profession. To do this, those in obvious leadership roles, be they members of the Board of Directors, officials of the various state and regional groups, heads of Colleges and so on, must adhere to the following principles:
- Believe in themselves as leaders of a professional organisation and, indeed, of a profession.
- Exercise the degree of self-control necessary to ensure that every decision they make is for the good of the Society and the profession and not to support a personal agenda.
- Use wisely the power bestowed upon them by those who elected them to office or appointed them to their position, helping the members to feel they are supported and that they belong to a worthwhile organisation.
- Engage in real dialogue with their constituents, a dialogue in which they truly listen to the concerns of members as well as explaining the rationale for various decisions that affect them.
- Be responsible for establishing an attainable vision for the Society and its membership, one toward which they are continually seen to be striving, and one to which all members can become committed and to which they can contribute.
Towards a healthier climate
Leaders who hold the five essential characteristics outlined in this article create an environment in which their staff will be motivated, engaged and committed to the task at hand. Their perception of the organisation is more likely to be positive and thus, the climate ‘healthier’. All of this combines to produce a milieu that contributes to the achievement of the organisational goals.
I am indebted to Marc Holt, Sandra Treadwell-Monk and John Larrere for constructively critical comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2005). Resonant leadership. Boston:Harvard University Press.
- Kandola, R. (2009). The value of difference: Eliminating bias in organisations. London: Pearn Kandola Publishing.
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- Litwin, G. H., & Stringer, R. A. (1968). Motivation and Organizational Climate. Boston: Harvard University Press.
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- Power, P.G. (2017). Wisdom in Education: Promoting emotional and social intelligence. Seminar Series Number 264, Centre for Strategic Education, Melbourne.
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