Between remote leadership, changing health guidelines, and an unstable economic and political landscape in much of the world, you are likely working with a lot of overwhelmed leaders right now. And while 2020 has been a uniquely challenging year, the truth is that we’ve been asking too much of leaders for much longer – and it’s a wonder any of them have managed to keep the plates spinning (or at least keep up the illusion). Over the last several decades expectations of leaders have grown exponentially, as we expect them to not only excel at boosting the bottom line, but to succeed in an ever-broader range of strategic and interpersonal areas as well.
While it is good – vital, even – that organizations recognize today’s complexities, many of them are missing an important reality: that no individual can deliver on all of these competencies at once. In fact, an organization needs a diverse range of leaders to meet all of its needs, rather than individual “heroic leaders” who can do it all.
This week, MRG’s Tricia Naddaff and Drew Rand addressed this imperative in the webinar Shared Leadership: How Better Team Dynamics Can Improve Organizational Effectiveness. You can watch the complete webinar on-demand here, get the highlights below, and watch Q&A with our presenters at the end of the blog.
How do we know that no one can do it all?
First, is it true that the “heroic leader” is just a myth? If you work in the leadership development field, it may be tempting to think that with the right coaching and developmental work, leaders can eventually build all the skills and competencies they need.
As we reflect on our research, we see quite a few reasons to believe that individual leaders are exceedingly unlikely to possess all the qualities they would need to excel across the board. Why?
- Changing expectations: an MRG study of more than 17,000 leaders demonstrated that the behaviors associated with effectiveness change as a leader rises through the ranks. Not only that, but the degree of change increases at each level. So what was considered effective at one level of an organization may not be as the leader gets promoted, and they will need to be agile and adaptive as they grow into new roles.
- Diversity of leadership: our studies consistently indicate that leadership behaviors vary based on gender, generation, country, and many other factors – sometimes significantly. For example, when comparing male leaders to women leaders in a recent study, we discovered that 14 of the 22 leadership behaviors measured were slightly to moderately different.
- Balancing relationships and results is exceedingly rare: A study of nearly 18,000 leaders provided a surprising finding – that only a vanishingly small percentage of leaders are effective in balancing both relationships and results. Just 3.37% are rated in the top half for both those competencies, and only .41% are rated in the top third. (The concept of the “neural see-saw” – explored in depth in Matthew Lieberman’s Social – can provide some insight as to why.)
All evidence suggests that the heroic leader is a unicorn. Yet many organizations persist in trying to find or develop them. In fact, in our live webinar poll, fully 80% of respondents said at least half of the time, organizations they work with are still expecting leaders to do it all.
What can we do? A shared leadership case study.
Here at MRG, we have long advocated for a shared leadership model as the answer. There are a number of approaches that can be used to facilitate this, but any model must begin with a foundation of shared self-awareness – an understanding of both your own behaviors and the behaviors of those you work with.
In the webinar, Drew Rand took us through a case study in which he used assessment tools to take a high performing group through a process of raising this awareness so that they could be even more effective together.
The work took place within a well-established non-profit healthcare organization in the midst of an evolution in its mission, from reactive delivery of healthcare to fostering a more proactive approach to overall health. Drew worked with a close-knit senior team of six leaders. While this was a high achieving group, they had identified a few areas where they felt there was room for some improvement: clarity, decision-making, and accountability.
To identify the critical leadership behaviors to be successful through this transition, they used Strategic Directions™, an LEA-based tool that allows organizations to isolate and prioritize the behaviors they can feel will make the biggest impact on achieving their strategic goals.
The group’s developmental work was grounded in the LEA 360™, a multi-rater behavioral assessment that measures how much emphasis leaders place on certain behaviors in their work. They also used the Leadership Impact Report, an accompanying assessment that takes a more evaluative approach to leadership competencies.
To get an even more focused look on where they could make improvements as both a team and as individuals – and to get important insights into how they might better share leadership responsibilities – they also made use of the LEA 360™ Enhanced Composite Report, a tool that helps teams shine a spotlight on potential areas of focus. The Enhanced Composite also provides a Strategic Directions gap analysis – clearly identifying areas where organizational priorities are out of alignment with how the team is being perceived.
This gap analysis provided several useful insights, including a noteworthy pattern: the team’s direct reports were consistently perceiving them as lower than their target on several behaviors they had identified as strategically important. They went further into the report and looked at the Developmental Recommendations, where the group’s data is run against MRG research to indicate behaviors they could consider working on to be more effective in key areas.
This section also made it clear that at the peer level, this conflict-averse group was quite happy with how things were going. Direct reports, however, were clearly indicating that they were simply not perceiving things the same way.
They looked closely at four key behaviors: Structuring, Communication, Feedback, and Management Focus. As a whole, the group had fairly low scores on all four of these behaviors. But the data revealed some important variations within the group. For example, the CEO had an exceptionally low structuring score, indicating that they may not spend much time organizing and planning, and a fairly low Management Focus score as well. The Director of Innovation & Strategy, a role that does not hold substantial responsibility for making sure things get done, had a much higher score on Management Focus than her peers within the group.
The group could recall an example of the challenges this had presented. In March, as decisions surrounding the COVID crisis needed to be made quickly, the CEO struggled to move more quickly in decision-making, falling into his usual pattern of taking time for others to weigh in before making decisions. The Director of Innovation & Strategy had stepped in to encourage him to make faster, more deliberate decisions, and offer support if necessary.
This was an example of organic shared leadership. Now, with these tools, the group had an important new tool: empirical data, and a shared language they can use to talk about themselves and each other. Armed with this information, they’ve laid the path to more intentional shared leadership.
How can we implement Shared Leadership?
There are aspects of shared leadership that may run counter to organizational history and habits. To start moving toward a shared leadership model, try implementing one or more of these strategies.
- Co-Leadership. When there’s a significant initiative or an important project, putting two complementary leaders together can be an effective way to carry it across the finish line. Clear role definition is key.
- Thinking Partnerships. Help leaders understand what they want from their thinking partners and where they want it in their work. This can be incredibly effective when leaders choose a thinking partner with whom they may have some friction – the differing approaches can add value.
- Running units like micro-organizations. You don’t expect the CEO to be the head of finance, marketing, or operations. At the top, we understand this. So when we look at teams, we can take a similar approach, and formally build some aspects of shared leadership into team members’ roles.
- Peer mentors and/or peer coaches. Seeking out peers with specific expertise as mentors or peers who understand the challenges the leader is facing can add valuable and often quick insights. This can be formal or informal, but it should be scheduled frequently enough to make an impact.
- Peer advisory groups. The logistics these entail will mean that these can’t be a frequent tool, but even quarterly, these can be powerful. When the group meets, the peer being advised cannot talk; they listen, take notes, and learn.
- A less hierarchical definition of leadership. With the buy-in of the organization overall, we can start to dismantle the formal hierarchy and start to establish a practice of providing feedback up the chain of command, and develop a culture that allows shared leadership to flourish.
In an increasingly complex world, it’s understandable that organizations feel like they need a complex set of competencies to achieve their goals. In fact, they’re right – it will take an increasingly broad set of skills to navigate our changing organizational and interpersonal landscapes. The best way to acquire, develop, and leverage that broad set of skills is to find them in a diverse coalition of leaders – and to stop searching for unicorns.
Watch the full webinar on-demand here. Click here for a sample of the LEA Enhanced Composite Report. And below, see answers from our experts on some of the questions you raised during the webinar.
Questions & Answers
Q: Regarding the “neural seesaw” – could you make a link with MBTI thinking vs. feeling preference?
Q: Despite this knowledge that leaders can’t “do it all,” it seems that there is still a tendency to promote leaders who create the image of being able to handle it all. Even if they share leadership, they may tend to share with those they can control. Can you comment?
Q: How do I help a middle manager who is high performing herself, but brutal on her colleagues, some of whom are not as high performing as she is? She does not hesitate to give negative feedback to her supervisees and is accused of bullying because of the frequency of this feedback.
Q: Doesn’t shared leadership require some vulnerability at the top?
Q: What kind of team development sessions did you conduct after the data was presented?
Q: When you’re asking people to share leadership responsibilities, how do you deal with pay differentials?
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Also, if there’s anything we at MRG can do to help support you or advise you as you transition to more online coaching, training, and facilitation in the coming weeks, please don’t hesitate to reach out.