Leadership is a set of behaviors used to help people align their collective direction, to execute strategic plans, and to continually renew an organization.
All leaders, to a certain degree, do the same thing. Whether you’re talking about an executive, manager, sports coach, or schoolteacher, leadership is about guiding and impacting outcomes, enabling groups of people to work together to accomplish what they couldn’t do working individually. In this sense, leadership is something you do, not something you are. Some people in formal leadership positions are poor leaders, and many people exercising leadership have no formal authority. It is their actions, not their words, that inspire trust and energy.
What’s more, leadership is not something people are born with – it is a skill you can learn. At the core are mindsets, which are expressed through observable behaviors, which then lead to measurable outcomes. Is a leader communicating effectively or engaging others by being a good listener? Focusing on behaviors lets us be more objective when assessing leadership effectiveness. The key to unlocking shifts in behavior is focusing on mindsets, becoming more conscious about our thoughts and beliefs, and showing up with integrity as our full authentic selves.
There are many contexts and ways in which leadership is exercised. But, according to McKinsey analysis of academic literature as well as a survey of nearly 200,000 people in 81 organizations all over the world, there are four types of behavior that account for 89 percent of leadership effectiveness:
- being supportive
- operating with a strong results orientation
- seeking different perspectives
- solving problems effectively
Effective leaders know that what works in one situation will not necessarily work every time. Leadership strategies must reflect each organization’s context and stage of evolution. One important lens is organizational health, a holistic set of factors that enable organizations to grow and succeed over time. A situational approach enables leaders to focus on the behaviors that are most relevant as an organization becomes healthier.
Senior leaders must develop a broad range of skills to guide organizations. Ten timeless topics are important for leading nearly any organization, from attracting and retaining talent to making culture a competitive advantage. A 2017 McKinsey book, Leading Organizations: Ten Timeless Truths (Bloomsbury, 2017), goes deep on each aspect.
How is leadership evolving?
In the past, leadership was called “management,” with an emphasis on providing technical expertise and direction. The context was the traditional industrial economy command-and-control organization, where leaders focused exclusively on maximizing value for shareholders. In these organizations, leaders had three roles: planners (who develop strategy, then translate that strategy into concrete steps), directors (who assign responsibilities), or controllers (who ensure people do what they’ve been assigned and plans are adhered to).
What are the limits of traditional management styles?
Traditional management was revolutionary in its day and enormously effective in building large-scale global enterprises that have materially improved lives over the past 200 years. However, with the advent of the 21st century, this approach is reaching its limits.
For one thing, this approach doesn’t guarantee happy or loyal managers or workers. Indeed, a large portion of American workers – 56 percent – claim their boss is mildly or highly toxic, while 75 percent say dealing with their manager is the most stressful part of their workday.
For 21st-century organizations operating in today’s complex business environment, a fundamentally new and more effective approach to leadership is emerging. Leaders today are beginning to focus on building agile, human-centered, and digitally enabled organizations able to thrive in today’s unprecedented environment and meet the needs of a broader range of stakeholders (customers, employees, suppliers, and communities, in addition to investors).
What is the emerging new approach to leadership?
This new approach to leadership is sometimes described as “servant leadership.” While there has been some criticism of the nomenclature, the idea itself is simple: rather than being a manager directing and controlling people, a more effective approach is for leaders to be in service of the people they lead. The focus is on how leaders can make the lives of their team members easier – physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Research suggests this mentality can enhance both team performance and satisfaction.
In this new approach, leaders practice empathy, compassion, vulnerability, gratitude, self-awareness, and self-care. They provide appreciation and support, creating psychological safety so their employees are able to collaborate, innovate, and raise issues as appropriate. This includes celebrating achieving the small steps on the way to reaching big goals and enhancing people’s well-being through better human connections. These conditions have been shown to allow for a team’s best performance.
More broadly, developing this new approach to leadership can be expressed as making five key shifts that include, build on, and extend beyond traditional approaches:
- beyond executive to visionary, shaping a clear purpose that resonates with and generates holistic impact for all stakeholders
- beyond planner to architect, reimagining industries and innovating business systems that are able to create new levels of value
- beyond director to catalyst, engaging people to collaborate in open, empowered networks
- beyond controller to coach, enabling the organization to constantly evolve through rapid learning, and enabling colleagues to build new mindsets, knowledge, and skills
- beyond boss to human, showing up as one’s whole, authentic self
Together, these shifts can help a leader expand their repertoire and create a new level of value for an organization’s stakeholders. The last shift is the most important, as it is based on developing a new level of consciousness and awareness of our inner state. Leaders who look inward and take a journey of genuine self-discovery make profound shifts in themselves and their lives; this means they are better able to benefit their organization. That involves developing “profile awareness” (a combination of a person’s habits of thought, emotions, hopes, and behavior in different circumstances) and “state awareness” (the recognition of what’s driving a person to take action). Combining individual, inward-looking work with outward-facing actions can help create lasting change.