Seven Insights to help you become a great leader – Keith Coats

Compass ConceptThe contemporary challenges facing corporate leaders are well documented. The context for leadership is one filled with complexity, ambiguity, volatility and uncertainty. They are challenges that aren’t going to go away or change anytime soon and if leaders hope to thrive in this new reality and context, new thinking and behaviour is required.

Here are seven things that as a leader you need consider should you wish to be a ‘great leader’ in such a context.

1. Think about how you think about leadership.

Driven by a relentless deluge of ‘how to’ insights and easy applications, the ‘leadership market’ has become one of short-cuts, ‘5 things to do’ and a host of effortless add-ons that make light of the responsibility that is leadership; reducing it to a mere role and responsibility.

Authentic leaders think about how they intend to practice and live their leadership. They understand the importance of an underpinning leadership philosophy that steers all they do.

They make sure that when it comes to the fuel to power their thinking they dare not run dry. Smart leaders understand how they think and they know when the way in which they think will prove helpful – and when it won’t! They are not lazy when it comes to building the insights and capacity to understand their own leadership and the demands being placed on them as they exercise that leadership.

Albert Einstein once said that thinking was the ‘hardest work of all – that is why so few engage in it’. Meg Wheatley has written that ‘all intelligent action starts with thinking’.

So when last did you take some intentional time out to think about your approach to leadership? What have you learnt in your leadership journey and how did that learning occur? What might need to be rethought when it comes to your leadership understanding and practice? What isn’t working – and why is that?

2. Disengage the autopilot: Be intentional in everything you do.

Intentionality is one of the basic principles of a powerful theory known as ‘Invitational Leadership’. Sometimes leaders are doing the ‘right thing’ and it is working but they don’t really know why it is working. They get used to cruising on autopilot in such circumstances. The problem is when what they are doing stops working for them. Because they didn’t know why it was working in the first place, they subsequently don’t know how to ‘fix it’ when it doesn’t work quite so well. Being intentional allows a leader to better understand what works and what doesn’t, and why. Being intentional directs and guides leadership action and activity in a manner that produces results and focuses effort. Intentionality is built off the platform of a determined leadership philosophy that helps ensure that not very wind or current is considered as the ‘right one’. Intentionally draws purpose out of the mundane and provides meaning to the ‘routine’.

When last did you sit down and map out a series of ‘intentional activities’ to guide your day, week or month as a leader? That targeted conversation that appears totally informal? That intentional cup of coffee served in a way that sets a powerful example? That intentional ‘seeing’ of someone who doesn’t expect you to notice him or her, even less, pay attention to the role they play in your organisation?

3. Understand how you see – and where that is helpful and not so helpful.

Your worldview determines how you interpret the world around you. If you don’t understand your worldview – the lens through which you see, you are incapable of recognising your own biases, prejudices and blind spots. Understand your worldview is the ‘inner work’ that leaders need to do. It is that interior landscaping that results in a deepening self-awareness that is the bedrock of emotional intelligence. There is simply no short cut to this work and it is fundamental if you are to lead successfully in a world of difference and diversity. In part this is why I love to travel to the places I go, places so different from ‘my world’ that they expose my own worldview and all its shortcomings. Places where basic constructs and understanding is so different to my own ‘normal’ and ‘logic’ that learning and unlearning is simply not optional. Seeing how you see is a leadership imperative in a world that is both connected and complex. I have seen senior leaders in global leadership programmes located in foreign and exotic locations away from what they are used to, refuse to see any differently to how they would were they back home. The result is a refusal to learn, grow and engage which invariably leads to a judgemental disposition that merely highlights their ignorance and just how ‘stuck’ they truly are. Fortunately, I have seen the opposite and the results can be quite spectacular!

What are your lenses that influence how you ‘see the world’? Age, nationality, culture, education, gender, health or physicality and experience would all be influential lenses that determine how you see.

Can you think of an occasion when your worldview was challenged? How did it come about? How did it make you feel? When last were in a situation where you realised that the ‘way you see things’ was totally inadequate? What did you do about it?

4. Get rid of the dog: Perspective is your best friend.

For leaders leading in today’s context, one described by futurists as a ‘VUCA’ world: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, – perspective is essential. In the adaptive leadership model a distinction is made between the ‘dance floor’ and the ‘balcony’. Being on the dance floor, and the expertise you displayed there is what got you noticed and promoted into the leadership position you hold. The problem is that too many leaders are spending too much time on the dance floor because that is what they know, that is what they are good at and so the lure of the dance floor remains a strong one. However when one is on the dance floor you cannot see the entire area or dance floor. Your sight or perspective is restricted to your immediate surroundings and therein is the problem. In a world of exponential and non-linear change, being on the balcony from which you can see the entire dance floor, is essential. Smart leaders know the difference (between the dance floor and the balcony) and when they need to be on one or the other. I recall sharing this powerful analogy with a CEO who immediately added his own insight: he said the reality of his day was spent running up and down the stairwell between the dance floor and the balcony! Maybe you can relate to that situation!

What constitutes ‘your balcony’? It can be a place, a habit or even a way you think. Accessing your balcony can be done in the midst of a meeting or discussion; it is a place that affords you perspective that you otherwise wouldn’t ordinarily have and it is essential for leaders. How can you cultivate the ‘balcony’ within your leadership team both personally and collectively?

5. Leadership is lonely only if you make it so.

You often hear the refrain that ‘leadership is lonely’ or ‘it is lonely at the top’. I don’t think that needs to be the case. It depends on how you see leadership. There is no doubt that leaders are required at times to make unpopular decisions or to say what no-one else is willing or able to say – and at that moment it might seem a lonely place to be, but that ought not to characterise the entire landscape or leadership journey. Smart leaders stay connected both inside and outside their leadership domain; smart leaders seek out mentors and forge relationships where they can be vulnerable, open and honest. Smart leaders know that to be lonely is ultimately their choice and not automatically the cloak that accompanies the throne they now occupy. Lonely leaders can be dangerous leaders as ultimately is erodes feedback, loosens bonds of accountability and can lead to a narrowing of perspective that can prove to be dangerous for both themselves and those they lead.

As a leader, are you lonely? If so, why? What can you do to change this and if you aren’t lonely as a leader, what can you do to safeguard this situation?

6. Know what to keep, what to discard and what to rearrange: your future survival depends on it.

Evolutionary biology embraces three things in the evolutionary process: what to keep; what to discard; what to rearrange. These simple, yet very complex questions form the key to helping you lead the change you need in order to thrive into the future. Leaders lead through change and todays context is one of continuous change. Ensuring that your organisation has the DNA to enable it to be nimble, agile and quick is your chief responsibility as a leader. It starts with you as a leader. Understanding how these three questions – what to keep, discard and rearrange, can form the backbone to all you do and the processes you follow, will go a long way in ensuring that you are able to adapt to whatever disruption is sure to come your way. The challenge is that too many leaders cling to past success, the way things were and change is often regarded as the enemy. A simple yet profound perspective when it comes to leading change in an organisation is the maxim that the fear of not changing must be greater than the fear of the change.

So, for your organisation to be ‘futurefit’ – to be able to thrive in the uncertain future, what is it you need to keep, discard and rearrange? With whom should you be having these conversations?

7. Respect: you need to earn it. Period.

Too many leaders today go on about the ‘loss of respect’ and mourn the change in attitudes and behaviours that they believe has eroded respect, as they know it. The challenge is that ‘respect’ is viewed differently from one generation to another. For an older generation respect is given by virtue of position and status. For a younger generation respect is earned. ‘It doesn’t matter that you are the boss, the adult, the parent or the teacher…you need to earn my respect’ is the basic construct for the younger generation. You can immediately see why this (the different approaches to respect) is problematic – and is so misunderstood! Almost every corporate values list incorporates ‘respect’ in the list somewhere; I delight in asking those on the inside just who’s respect are they referring to when they list respect as a corporate value? It invariably leads to some interesting conversations! As a leader don’t assume that your position gives you respect. Far better that you intentionally go about earning it on a daily basis regardless of the ages of those reporting to you. Of course the matter of respect plays out in cultural settings in addition to the generational one mentioned.

Why not reopen the internal conversation around respect in your company? What it really is and how it could be more meaningfully understood and lived? Where has ‘respect’ as you have understood it, proved limiting and has been open to misunderstanding?

In conclusion, just a thought I would like to leave you with for your consideration: Each of these ‘seven areas’ invites deeper exploration; an exploration that will require bold and courageous leadership. Before you might be tempted to embark on that journey with others (your team), may I suggest you first spend time engaging with the points yourself. Doing so might provide some deeper insights and wisdom as to how best to approach and start the journey with the others you have in mind. Don’t hesitate to contact me should you wish to chat further around any of these areas – and please do let me know how it goes!

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