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Ian Lawson

Bred not born: Developing outstanding leadership

Authors: Ian Lawson Ian Lawson

14 August 2012

Friedrich Engels famous adage that “an ounce of action is worth a ton of theory” could be seen as the underlying message to emerge from The Work Foundation’s acclaimed research into the distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ leadership. Based on hundreds of in-depth interviews with leaders from major UK corporations, this detailed research identified nine key behaviours that separate outstanding leaders from their peers. The burning question was whether or not such qualities could be developed  to enhance leadership performance and we decided to find out through a pilot project.

Our highly scrutinised and evaluated pilot has since been developed into major leadership programmes where we have tested and honed the key principles below. When these have been applied, they have made a significant difference. 

1. Ground the programme to the personal leadership journey of the individual and the situation at their organisation so that it fits in with their values, performance systems, culture, specific work/relational issues.

2. Design and deliver an integrated, incremental programme moving from emphasis on ‘self’ through to relationships with others and impact on the organisation. Allow time for testing and learning between modules. Include 360 degree leadership profiling, shadowing and work-based observation as well as the formal modules. Ensure any programme and all participants have organisational sponsors to support their development and provide coaching to support the programme.

3. Live the messages associated with the best leadership principles and behaviours in the delivery of the programme (self as enabler, thinking and acting systemically and developing people for performance).  This means encouraging openness and trust, relationship building, a sense of exploration, building confidence, observing and learning from other leaders, following the interests of the participants and facilitating frequent reflection points both within modules and back at work. The emphasis is on discussion and practise drawing  from the participants (instead of showing how much knowledge the tutors have!)

4. Stimulate thinking, share insights and input short, sharp useable models for colleagues to try out  both on modules and back in the work place. Look for how to take the essence of powerful thinking such as Appreciative Inquiry, Four channel communication (Rodgers, 2007) or non-directive coaching and translate them into user friendly approaches for busy line managers using an 80/20 approach.

5. Always be looking for the ‘so what?’ from discussions and keep the focus on the circle of influence rather than the circle of concern.

Overall in the last two years, my colleagues and I have become more convinced of the power of this approach, routed in ‘less is more’ in terms of tutor inputs and key models/approaches , drawing on real examples from powerful grounded research. Enabling participants to experience and test out practical application of the principles both on the programme and at the workplace really helps to support them as they develop new techniques. As demonstrated by the positive feedback we regularly receive, an integrated approach that remains mindful of the “leadership for what?” question provides much more powerful dividends than any traditional leadership skills training course.

Ian Lawson is an associate  of The Work Foundation