Perspectives of leadership

I suggested to a client that we do a leadership perception survey. She laughed—she didn’t see herself as a leader. In the conversation that ensued we explored how we are all leaders.

We lead ourselves, every day, in the way we are in our lives. It shows up in how we allocate time and effort to what we think is important: self-care, parenting, spirituality, professional development, work-life balance and so on.

Many of us also lead others. We may or may not be a managerial leader of employees. It may be that we are leaders in the way our children see us as role models. Or we may be leaders in our wider family. We may be leaders in our community or in our professional sphere.

Nancy Kline, author of Time to Think, recounts a story of being a young teacher facing a parental query about the literature she had chosen as the students’ learning for the term. The headmaster said to her: “Nancy, never forget they are also learning you.”

This is the point: “They are learning you.” A client’s team and I were discussing how a certain company’s culture had tangibly shifted within a year since the arrival of a new chief executive.

Closer to home, team members shared anecdotes. One of them had a son who was reprimanded at school for bad language. His defence was that it was what he had heard at home from his father and grandfather when they were watching rugby. Another team member said he was in a bad mood and had been offhand with the gardener. The next day he witnessed his young son do a perfect imitation of the same offhand style.

Hopefully, if we observe negative behaviour we are sufficiently clear about how we want to be in the world to distance ourselves and not be influenced.

Quite a few of my clients highlight “improving my leadership effectiveness” as a coaching outcome.

One of my first clients chose this as his focus. We worked together for several sessions. From his description of his interactions in the workplace it seemed to me that he was a good leader. I doubted the value he could get from our sessions.

I asked if he’d be amenable to my interviewing his colleagues. He agreed. The answers were unexpected. His team saw him as an unpleasant dictator. We were then able to explore the disconnection between self-representation and his team’s perception.

Once bitten, twice shy. This experience changed my approach. Whenever I can I work with the information that emerges from the leadership perception survey I conduct. I pose exactly the same questions to six people nominated by the client; people whose experience of the client as a leader allows them to provide the most useful information. The survey takes about 45 minutes telephonically with each person and has three parts.

In part one I use Michael Hall’s “the being and doing of leadership”. “Being” is defined as authenticity, integrity and congruency. “Doing”  is contribution (serving), collaboration, pioneering and communication. The rating scale is one to five, with five being the highest score.

I ask people to describe an incident that provides real-life data to give me an insight into their rating style as compared with their colleagues—for example, is their style critical or lenient?

In part two I take several topics and apply the same approach: team dynamics, conflict resolution, ­people development, emotional intelligence and leadership style.

In part three I ask these questions: what does X do well that he or she should do more of? What should X stop doing because it does not serve him or her? What should X start doing that he or she does not yet do? What change in X would make the most difference to you? What could you as a colleague commit to doing differently with X that would support the change you want to see?

I have learned to be ready for surprises. “How would you describe X’s leadership style?” I ask.

“Well, on a spectrum of Mother Theresa on one end and Hitler on the other, X is close to Hitler.”

I take a deep breath. My client is going to read this feedback verbatim and it’s harsh.

I scramble the answers and collate them into themes. My client may want to try to guess who said what and I want to make that difficult. I don’t write up the examples if it means the speaker can be identified.

The point is that it is a perception survey and as a leader that’s what you are dealing with, the perceptions you create as well as others’ projections of you. A seasoned politico gave me this advice when I was caught up in controversy as managing director of the Land Bank: “Helena, irrespective of the allegations being untrue, there are critical perceptions being created, and you have to deal with these perceptions.”

I get my clients to write their own aspirational description of how they want to be as a leader. They compare this description with the feedback from the perception survey. If there’s a gap, then our work begins.


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