The quest for the definitive characteristics of the ideal 21st Century leader continues. With defining such characteristics comes the challenge of developing them personally and inculcating them in our organization's culture. In this article, I consider some of the ideas put forward in a white paper entitled, Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age, recently published by Skillsoft.
The paper is based on a study in which more than 1,100 people from around the world participated to answer the question about the difference in our leadership requirements in this century compared to the previous one. The study found that there is a clear enough view regarding the necessary qualities and competencies for successful leadership. However, the research highlights worryingly that today's leaders are not typically translating the results into practice.
In an attempt to illustrate key practicalities in building 21st Century leadership, the white paper offers seven techniques or practices that contribute to both personal leadership competence and a conducive organizational culture. Here, I want to focus on the first four of these practical techniques. This group of four practices center on translating intention into action. Without action, the best leadership information and values amount to zero organizational results.
When it comes to making our organizations function better, the Skillsoft study argues for an innovation-friendly organizational culture. Innovation is called for both in oneself and in others, not only in the conventional way in which we picture "innovation" (such as inventing or designing new products). It asks us to use innovation as a guiding principle in the daily choices we make and actions we undertake. Within that context, let us now look at the first four practices dealing with action.
Overcome Fear-Induced Inertia
In this rapidly changing world, we constantly have to act in the face of uncertainty. As the uncertainty escalates, so does our stress levels. A typical response is to freeze up. Although it is appropriate to pause and reflect before moving forward on a new challenge, we need ways of overcoming the immobility that comes from fear and uncertainty.
Drawing from the insights of Chip Conley, author of Emotional Equations, Skillsoft suggests we think of a specific daunting task or project and then list the things we have control over and the ones we don't. Through performing such an exercise, two things change initially. You realize:
you have control over far more than you thought, and
there are resources to help with the elements that are not in your control
This exercise creates a powerful mind shift, which helps to break the inertia triggered by uncertainty or fear. Following this, another change occurs. You discover you are capable of acting because courage, based on confidence, has displaced fear.
Their white paper argues for "purposeful practice". Change isn't about stopping doing something, but about thinking and then doing it differently. It isn't about stopping being fearful and frozen into inaction. It is about shifting focus from the big, the frightening, the insurmountable, to the practical, the feasible, the do-able, the within-my-control, actions. Through practicing such focus-shifting, initially on a small and manageable scale, a leader can develop the competency of innovation and the ability to act upon opportunities where others see only threats.
Know How You Manage Your Time
The next step is to know where you spend your time. Referring to the work of Martin Seligman, the study admonishes us to be more systematic in how we prioritize the time we spend on the various activities that comprise our daily lives. By taking a realistic look at where we spend our time, we will be able to redirect our energies to what really counts. This is not new advice by any means, but it is a healthy reminder to be more deliberate in our choices of how we allocate our time. (Ironically, the reference to Seligman raised the expectation for me that there would be some reference to happiness in the point about managing time, but it was not to be.)
Taking action is suggested as the next technique. If the first two succeed in our overcoming fear and misdirected effort, the third is for us to stop procrastination by setting and sticking to the deadlines we set ourselves. Without personal deadlines, the human tendency to allow a project to expand into as much time as you have available can result in personal and/or project failure.
This again may be too obvious to be stated, for some. However, we are reminded that inaction itself is a choice - a decision not to act. The people who get ahead are always those who choose to act. More often than not such actions are rooted in innovative ideas; something new, for the future. This is as true of workers and leaders in the 21st Century as it was of those in the previous 20 centuries and earlier. Yet, many opportunities continue to be missed as a result of failure to act, possibly because of the very presence of creativity and, hence, the unknown.
The 21st Century leader needs to understand employee motivation. Many scientific studies have been done on motivation, especially since the 1940s. As these studies show, the top ten or twelve motivators tend to remain much the same. Yes, there is a tendency for the top motivators to change their relative positions from time to time, or between generations and cultures. These variations notwithstanding, misunderstanding, and consequently misapplying, the currency of motivation can not only be a waste of time, it can serve as a de-motivator.
The Skillsoft study quotes a research project undertaken by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer and described in Amabile's book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Winds to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. It illustrates the gap between what managers believe and what employees report as their top motivator at work. In their examination of 12,000 diary entries by 238 employees in seven different companies, they found that 95% of managers believe that recognition is the top motivator. The remaining 5% recognized that for employees meaningful progress in one's work is the prime motivator.
It means that our leaders need to be spending more time on creating an environment that encourages employees' engagement with the job and its ultimate purpose. They need to find ways of ensuring that employees are kept informed about progress and the impact of their work. Does this mean that "recognition" flies out the window? No, not at all. What it does mean is that such recognition is more successful as a motivator when it is offered in the context of the meaningful progress that the employee is making in the job. That is, when the congratulatory, "Thank you and well done", connects the effort with the goal of the task.
As employee motivation is not a constant, it is also important to keep abreast of shifts in attitudes and expectations and to be generationally and culturally aware. I have argued before, and I make the point again here, that seeking input directly from employees is critical in choosing the right tools for engagement and motivation. Remember, the well-worn saying, one person's meat is another person's poison.
What are the lessons learnt from this white paper thus far? The key messages are that to be an effective leader you need to overcome fear and inertia, act with confidence, manage your time consciously and create a motivating environment for your team.
- Skillsoft Ireland Limited (2012). Actionable Leadership in the Creative Age
- Conley, Chip (2012). Emotional Equations, New York, The Free Press
- Amabile, Teresa and Kramer, Steven (2011). The Progress Principle: Using Small Winds to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work, Harvard Business Review Press
Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.
He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
For practical help with turning your change program into real action, check out Leslie's resource kit, Managing Change in the Workplace. This comprehensive guide is intended for everyone expected to lead, manage and implement change. Visit the Managing Change in the Workplace information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this practical change management guide and workbook today.