I have blogged a lot about leadership skills over the years and there is a steady river of books, articles, workshops, and comprehensive programs on the subject. While there are often fresh, creative theories, much of what one comes across are variations on well-established approaches, but using different emphases or combining elements in different measures. Some, like Jim Collins’ works, transform the way organizations and entire sectors operate.
One of the ongoing debates in leadership is how situational leadership models should be – to what degree should specific leadership attributes be constant and unchanging, and to what extend should they mold to the needs of an organization at a certain moment in time? I came across a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly that shares research on this question and provides an interesting answer. Indeed, this was the most read article of any in 2015 from the McKinsey Quarterly
The researchers (McKinsey staffers) looked at what they found were 20 common leadership traits and tested them in a study involving about 189,000 employees in 81 organizations. They found that the most effective leaders most commonly and most consistently exhibited four traits:
- Solving problems effectively. The process that precedes decision making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed, and considered. This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision making for major issues (such as M&A) as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).
- Operating with a strong results orientation. Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.
- Seeking different perspectives. This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues, and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns. Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.
- Supporting others. Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges. They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.
None of these is new nor Earth shattering, but they do reinforce a few things:
1. Confidence to be open to others’ views – for some it’s counter intuitive that leadership is best illustrated by willingness to change and being comfortable with not always being right. Your willingness to change your views based on listening, recognizing that integrating many views is usually a much better outcome than the views of one (regardless of how smart that person is), and realizing that, at the core, a leader’s greatest achievements and strategies are actually often those of the other team members – these are sometimes hard lessons to learn, but reflect true wisdom.
2. Soft skills as important as hard skills. As I have blogged about previously, I come from the school of thought that the best answers, the best strategies, and the greatest truths are usually found in the grey rather than the brightest white or the darkest black. Leadership is never about just the hard, analytical, technical, process, skills nor just the soft, interpersonal, creative, intuitive. Great leadership finds both, in balance.
3. These are all skills – solving problems creatively, operating with a strong results orientation, seeking different perspectives, and supporting others – we develop in Appleby programs. Whether it’s through the curriculum, being on an athletic team or the school play “team”, the Northward Bound experience in Temagami, being part of an international service team, one of our many councils, or through our formal student leadership programs, on a daily basis, I see examples of Appleby students from Grade 7 to 12 learning these kinds of lessons and develop these kinds of perspectives.
They are in that “sweet spot” of attributes that work both for success in education and success for a lifetime. They are perhaps among the most important teachables that we provide.