Did 2020 alter your perspective on what it takes to be a good leader? So…what does that say about your competency model?

Let’s start with a quiz. Review the two descriptions below. One is from a global executive competency model1. The other is from the American Kennel Club’s (AKC) breed standard for an Australian Shepherd Dog.

Click on the description if you need to know which is which.

Speaking of the AKC, our family has always loved watching the National Dog Show on Thanksgiving. Even though our grown daughters did not travel home for Thanksgiving this year, we all still watched the dog show. When our daughters were growing up, we had a Welsh Corgi named Milo. We still get very excited during the part of the show when it’s time to judge the herding group. To this day we all root for the Pembroke Corgi.

Sometimes I think those of us who work in leadership development are jealous of the dog show judges. We wish we had a set of agreed upon standards for judging leaders. If only we could clarify and align on an ideal, we would know whom to promote and we would know where to focus our training efforts.

Of course, describing effective leadership is nothing like describing the ideal Australian Shepherd. Leadership is a relationship not a set of characteristics. Like parenting, what counts as good leadership varies with the situation and the nature of the people you care for.

Good leaders are neither bred nor manufactured. Still, we just can’t seem to shake the production mindset when we think about the performance of leaders. We can’t help thinking that the behaviors and output of a leader should be held up against some standard.

From Models to Modes

The pandemic has brought suffering and devastation, it has also shaken loose a lot of foundational assumptions. We can get work done even when we can’t convene in an office. Classrooms aren’t the only place public education can happen. And maybe we’re starting to realize that the leadership our organizations need doesn’t conform to a static model.

Many of our clients are focused on accelerating the readiness of high-potential managers for senior leadership roles. I understand the dilemma. Given the vast number of baby boomers getting ready for retirement, organizations need to prepare promotable replacements for many of their most experienced leaders. Consequently, a select group of middle managers will soon be moving into executive roles having had much less experience than their predecessors.

While I appreciate the challenge of filling key vacancies, I believe it’s time for us to put away our measuring sticks when thinking about developing organizational leadership. If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

If you want to accelerate someone’s readiness for a key leadership role, maybe you should be less concerned about how to speed up development and more concerned about what you mean by readiness.

We rely too much on our leadership competency models. Let’s start to think more systemically about the modes of leadership appropriate to our times, our needs, and our missions. When technology disrupts our markets, we might benefit from a shift to an innovation leadership mode. When unexpected change forces us to work in unfamiliar ways, we might need a shift to an empathetic leadership mode.

We can’t expect leaders to live up to an impossible set of standards. We can, however, redesign our organizations so we can access the leadership mode we need given our circumstances and our goals. What if our leadership modes, rather than our organizational charts determined who becomes more influential and who becomes less influential? Sometimes we need General George Patton, and sometimes we need Rosa Parks.

Our Corgi Milo suffered from serious skin allergies. He was on a variety of medications including monthly allergy shots, which he begrudgingly accepted because he knew it meant a stick of string cheese afterword. Milo was gentle and lethargic. He had a few frisky years when we first rescued him, but for most of his life with us he was never really up for herding anything.

The AKC standard for Pembroke Welsh Corgis ends with a description of the ideal breed temperament, “Outlook bold, but kindly. Never shy or vicious. The judge shall dismiss from the ring any Pembroke Welsh Corgi that is excessively shy2.” Milo never stood a chance at the National Dog Show, but he was the ideal companion when we lived in a raucous, cluttered house full of energetic kids.

  1. McCall, M., & Hollenbeck, G. (2002). Developing global executives: The lessons of international experience. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing
  2. American Kennel Club (1993). Official Standard of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi. Page 3. Retrieved from: https://images.akc.org/pdf/breeds/standards/PembrokeWelshCorgi.pdf

The Four Influence Modes

People have been interested in influencing one another long before modern organizational structures blurred lines of authority. Aristotle laid out his theory of persuasion in the 4th Century BC. One of the bestselling books of all times, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was written in 1936 and is still readily available. Today, Dale Carnegie and Associates, Inc. will sell you targeted versions of the classic like, How to Win Friends and Influence People in the Digital Age or How to Win Friends and Influence People for Teen Girls. Suffice to say; those of us schooled in Western intellectual traditions have come to believe that influence is something we do to others and the more skilled we become, the more others will be attracted to us and to our ideas.

In our organizational lives, the desire to increase agility and decrease cost challenges us to collaborate in ever more ambiguous and complex working relationships. In an attempt to move faster, organizations have removed layers of authority hoping to empower those closest to the work to make daily operating decisions without seeking permission along a chain of command. As a consequence, it is not uncommon for authority over investments, processes and the allocation of resources to be shared or unassigned.

The volatility of today’s business environment demands quick action and adaptability, but when no one can answer the question, “How will this decision get made?” the desire for agility bumps up against our preference for clarity.

When your rank, role, or status does not dictate your decision-making authority, action results from some combination of influence and cooperation. When the responsible parties cannot influence each other, decisions either get escalated to over-burdened functional executives or they tumble through an endless consensus cycle that wrings out accountability and commitment.

I want to offer for your consideration a framework that examines four modes of influence. While each mode represents a legitimate approach to influence, the distinctions among the modes may reveal hidden obstacles to moving forward. Each mode assumes a particular mindset about influence and a particular skillset to employ the mode effectively. Distinguishing among the influence modes will also surface incompatible approaches.

 

Slide2Coercive

  • Catchphrase: Do as I say
  • Source: Power imbalance
  • Strategy: Find the fear; exploit weakness

Coercive influence has limited applicability in modern organizations. It might be useful in a police interrogation or among religious fundamentalists, but influencing someone by focusing on authority or a power imbalance violates the morality of human dignity. If people respect your rank, role or status, coercive influence becomes benign compliance. When you exploit your rank, role or status to get your way, people will submit in the short run, but in the long run, they will expend their discretionary energy seeking ways to undermine or work around your demands. Coercive influence works when people have something to fear. Bob Woodward and his publishers made a very deliberate decision to call his most recent book, Fear: Trump in the White House.

When reaching conclusions or moving to action under coercive influence, there is only one acceptable option. The rules defining right and wrong are prescribed or dictated.

Slide2Persuasive

  • Catchphrase: Lend me your ear
  • Source: Rhetorical excellence
  • Strategy: Draw on credibility, emotion and logic

Persuasion is a form of influence that derives from a mechanistic model of human interaction. Person A holds belief x and uses the tools of persuasion to get person B to adopt belief x and to be willing to act on belief x. We typically think of politicians and organizational leaders as people who rely on rhetorical excellence to influence others. Persuasive influence works best when one person communicates to many people. The exact same rhetorical skill used in a more intimate setting or during a one-on-one conversation suddenly feels manipulative. People in an audience don’t expect to be heard from. People in a meeting do.

When reaching conclusions or moving to action under persuasive influence, there are only as many options as there are participants in the discussion.

Slide2Collaborative

  • Catchphrase: Better together
  • Source: Trust
  • Strategy: Build on shared interests and share responsibility for success

When we move from persuasion to collaboration, influence gets reframed. In the collaborative influence mode, influence is no longer something one person does to others. The collaborative mode and the emergent mode regard influence as change caused through interaction. In collaborative influence both parties are open to a “third way.” Collaborative influence rejects the notion that I am only influential when I convince others to see it my way. In collaborative influence, both parties explore their needs and interests and success depends on finding a way forward that meets shared needs and interests.

Under collaborative influence, multiple options emerge from an exploration of mutual interest.

Slide2Emergent

  • Catchphrase: Be here now
  • Source: Care
  • Strategy: Co-create safety for change through dialogue and improvisation

When it comes to the language of influence, it’s hard to think about influence without imagining a protagonist. Like collaborative influence, emergent influence rejects the conception of influence as something that one person does to others. Entering into emergent influence assumes that all parties care about each other’s needs and interests. In emergent influence mode, the potency of my influence is directly proportional to my openness to being influenced by others.

Under emergent influence we are only constrained by the depth of our desire to serve others.

 

Leadership versus Heroism

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

Driven time and again off course, once he had plundered

the hallowed heights of Troy.1

 

The Trump presidency has raised some difficult questions for some of us who study and teach leadership. Most of my colleagues share values and beliefs that derive from a tradition of humanism, a belief that people have inherent value, goodness and dignity. For the humanist, people have needs and potential, therefore the job of leadership is to uncover needs and help people reach their potential. Consultants and organizational development professionals who operate in the humanist tradition conduct research on collaboration and transformative learning. We write books and teach workshops with names like, Servant Leadership and Facilitative Leadership. We keep encouraging leaders to listen, to learn and to model humility.

There are other schools of thought about leadership. You can find plenty of material on how to be a charismatic leader or an authoritarian leader. I suppose the lowest common denominator of leadership philosophies is that leaders have followers. Trump has followers, and not just on Twitter.

Speaking of twitter, I woke up recently with a nagging fear that my clients would start asking me to lead brainstorming sessions to come up with insulting epithets for competitors in 140 characters or less.

I’ve gotten so confused about what it means to be a leader I decide that I needed to follow my own advice and keep an open mind. I even purchased a copy of Trump’s The Art of the Deal. I should say I downloaded the book to my Kindle. I don’t want to be on the receiving end of side-eyes from my seat-mates on airplanes. By the way, in the section of the book about the importance of gaining leverage during a negotiation, Trump wrote, “My leverage came from confirming an impression they were already predisposed to believe.” Maybe the new workshop should be called, “Leadership as Theater.”

I admit that I’m allowing myself to take elitist potshots at Trump. Perhaps it’s a reaction to having my leadership convictions unmoored by what I’m witnessing. Just because Trump is not my kind of leader, does that mean he’s not an effective leader?

Was Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong Un in Singapore an act of leadership?

After watching the Hollywood style movie trailer produced by the White House a distinction popped into my head that helped me square my beliefs about leadership with what I witnessed last week. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t want to be a leader; Trump wants to be a hero.

I think it is a particularly American notion to mix up heroism and leadership. In some cases the attributes coexist, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela come to mind. Heroes are defined by their struggles and achievements. Leaders are defined by their ability to ennoble and inspire others to reach their potential. Heroes have adoring fans. Leaders produce a new generation of leaders.

Contrasting leadership and heroism brought Odysseus to mind. Homer’s epic poem is the story of Odysseus’ kleos. Kleos is a Greek term for “glory” or “renown.” Since it is related to the word “to hear,” kleos translates as, “the great deeds others hear about you.” We don’t yet know whether we should compare Trump’s presidency to the voyage of Odysseus or the voyage of the S.S. Minnow, but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that, if you’ll excuse the expression, kleos trumps leadership for our president.

Homer makes Odysseus out to be a hero, but even the Muse could not embellish his questionable leadership capabilities. Recall that Odysseus led a disobedient crew of questionable intelligence who were all eaten, turned into swine and/or (spoiler alert) drowned by an angry Zeus at the end of the journey.

Slide1

And then there’s the bit about Odysseus wanting to hear the song of the Sirens. The Sirens’ song was reputed to be so enchanting that sailors passing close enough to hear the song would be drawn to the Sirens and end up shipwrecked on the coast of their island. Odysseus had his crew lash him to the mast of his ship and then ordered the crew to put beeswax in their ears so they would not hear the singing.

There is one thing Trump has in common with leaders I admire. He forces me to recognize and question my assumptions.

 

 

¹Opening lines of Homer’s The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles (1996)