What is leadership?

A roundtable discussion with three generations on leadership: terminology, themes and trends.

The most important role of the CEO is leadership development and succession planning.” The essence of leadership is, “integrity, respect for people, knowledge of the circumstances in a given place and time, and surrounding myself with people who know more than I do.

It is also knowing when to step aside,” says J. Allyn Taylor, a former chair of Canada Trust, an active volunteer, and a model for several generations of executives.

Kelly Butt is a former executive turned consultant in mid-career, a volunteer on several boards in health care and former executive-in-residence at the London, Ont.-based Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario. For her, leadership is, “showing people what the future can hold. Showing them how to get there, but giving them enough rope to find their own way.”

Leadership requires, “finding several people who could take over for you and developing them as far as you can by sharing all the talent and skills you have to make them the best they can be.” Leadership is, “taking risks on behalf of other people, making them feel really good about their contributions and, when things go wrong, finding ways to criticize and promote learning, without demoralizing them,” she says.

The CEO’s most important leadership accountabilities are, “to create a culture that expects strong leadership; to model behaviour; to pick people throughout the organization, test them and allow them to shine; to encourage people to learn the whole of the business and to move around; to take chances and to learn.”

The “nexus” generation, says Robert Barnard, co-author of Chips and Pop: Decoding the Nexus Generation and president of Toronto-based d-Code, places a premium on developing people. When asked in a study to name a respected leader, this generation struggled. They named a very short list, including Nelson Mandela and Rene Levesque, but no business leaders. “They start off with incredible skepticism of leadership, but will participate when they see competence — real people that speak off the cuff, joke when they feel like it, wear what they want to wear, and demonstrate charisma with humility,” says Barnard.

There was consensus on the leadership roles corporate boards of directors play — or don’t play. Many boards, “as the representatives of shareholders, but also staff, customers and the community, fail completely to perform their leadership role,” says Taylor. Butt believes the board’s role is, “to demand leadership, monitor it and model it,” both on the board and within the organization. “Boards have unbelievable wisdom. They must promote learning by finding ways to share that wisdom with a broader group than just the executive team,” she added.

In Taylor’s words, “leaders must work to gain the confidence and respect of their people or they won’t listen and they won’t come up with innovative ideas. To do this, the importance of personal interaction cannot be overestimated.”

Butt points to two key tasks for developing leaders. First, is a cogent needs analysis to identify what kind of help is required. “Organizations often drive out leadership talent or don’t develop what they have. There is often a huge gap between the senior leadership and the newcomers who feel stifled by the culture and structure.”

Second, organizations need to explore how they could create opportunity outside the normal structure, through task forces, acquisitions and leadership roles that stretch people. “We often have no idea how talented people are until we throw them into opportunities where we are confident in their abilities and where we support them,” says Butt.

The pride in accomplishment is extremely motivating and supportive of development. Butt speaks of “finding people who had diverted all their energy to outside work because they were not challenged within their organization, identifying unknown and inexperienced talent, helping those people believe they could do anything they wanted, and sharing knowledge, successes and mistakes to make them better, more caring, more compassionate leaders.”

To ensure a sound succession plan is in place with multiple candidates, is also the CEO’s key role. Organizations must, “try to bring out the best in all potential leaders, to look at the whole team as successors, to give them opportunities to learn each others’ jobs, to point them to the outside world and broader perspectives — toward networks, professional or industry associations, community or volunteer work,” says Butt. These things should happen at all levels in order to develop the talent pool on which healthy succession is based.

Mentoring is taking on increasing importance. There is consensus that, whether formal or informal, mentoring is about confidence building and helping people to sell themselves. Says Butt of a supportive mentor, “he took lots of chances on me. He introduced me to people I needed to know, showed me the ropes of the social and political sides of executive life.”

Several recurring themes appear in the current dialogue and research on leadership. The participants commented on them.

Leader with multiple roles — as coach, mentor, teacher, facilitator and confidence builder:

•90 per cent of decisions can be made by staff, but leaders must make the really tough ones;

•listening, eliciting the answers from others;

•giving constructive feedback;

•clarifying boundaries;

•removing road blocks, obstacles;

•capturing external perspectives and market demands;

•being there; and

•recognizing and celebrating achievement.

Strategy as learning as well as executive direction:

•many of the best strategies emerge bottom-up or outside-in as people listen and learn;

•the role of the leader is to listen to the bazaar of ideas, select those that will get you where you need to be, nurture them, and bring the rest of the organization on side; and

•nurturing the most challenging new ideas often requires taking them out of the normal structure.

Learning rooted in real business planning and work:

•we need a good grounding in theory and classroom learning, but we don’t really understand an idea until it gets applied;

•we learn from mistakes, if we take the time to do so; and

•we need to identify the skills needed, then find work opportunities to learn and apply at the same time, such as leading a small project team.

The participants discussed leadership trends, both in play and emerging:

•Generating leadership throughout the organization: give people a set of principles, limits and the freedom and flexibility to work within them; then trust and respect them, challenge them to learn new things; if you have focus and alignment and some criteria for decision-making, people will pleasantly surprise you.

•Nexus people need leaders to be democratic, collaborative, accountable, accessible, real people with a range of interests.

•Our world needs people to be able to figure out what they would like and how they would like to apply it; we need both specialists and generalists, flexibility and mobility; the ability to sell, to convince others of ideas; the ability to think and facilitate solutions, but not always to have the answer or the perfect plan; the ability to be spontaneous and enjoy the unexpected.

•The softer skills are really the harder skills to acquire and develop. We need people who value, possess and can lead with those capabilities. They include listening, influencing, facilitating solutions and difficult conversations, developing teams and partnerships, and making meaning out of complexity.

We have talked about what leadership is, what are some important themes and trends. Despite their very different perspectives, there is truly some common ground in terms of what people expect and need of leaders and how to best develop them. As Taylor says: “The leader’s role is to put in place and enable people who can perform effectively, to co-ordinate and bring out the best in them, and to recognize and value their contributions.”

Joanne Reid is president of London,Ont.-based Joanne Reid Management Consulting. She can be reached at (519) 660-4237 or [email protected]

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