Ulster Business School

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The real LEADER in you?

Dr. Martin McCracken – Ulster University Business School

The leadership issue, more than any other management subject, has been written about and poured over by management academics and commentators.  Indeed if we perform the now ubiquitous ‘google test’ we find an astounding 28,400,000 hits on the term ‘effective leadership’.  Now we all know that if we click on a great many of these links we will be whisked off to the websites of the modern day ‘snake oil’ salesmen selling their potions, charms and recipes (advice) on how to become more effective leaders.  In the face of such an overwhelming avalanche of information, it is perhaps not surprising that many managers feel swamped or turned off when it comes to leadership advice, not knowing where to turn with new (and often contradictory) theories or perspectives emerging almost weekly.  Indeed many readers, possessing the perhaps understandable ‘tell me something I don't already know’ attitude, may have already passed over this article and moved on to the next feature containing something they hope will be more tangible and relevant to them.  

I think the key thing that I have discovered during almost 20 years of teaching and researching in this area, is that for those who aspire to become truly effective leaders it is essential to take an honest and critical introspective analysis of their leadership. For me the key to becoming more ‘effective’ will not be found in the latest advice from management gurus or thinkers, but from within yourself.  If you are to become a better leader and increase your knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA) you need to ask some searching personal questions about yourself and what you do everyday in work and increasingly in life. In this brief article I try to cut through some of the more opaque perspectives relating to leadership and encourage you to practically reflect on your leadership role and how you can become a more effective leader in the future. A key aim here is to give you a number of ‘take aways’, so as you read through the following paragraphs I want you to think about what these issues mean for you in terms of developing as a LEADER in the future?

Perhaps the most important element in effective leadership is understanding that you are never the finished article – there is always something new to LEARN. In a recent article from O’Connell (2014) in the main academic leadership journal (Leadership Quarterly) it was argued that leaders have to learn continuously because of the increasingly uncertain and turbulent world in which we live.  Having the capacity to acquire managerial and practical wisdom, integrate it into practice, and gain more advanced skills EVERYWHERE and ALWAYS, throughout your career is vital. Learning everywhere and always requires being open to considering new realities, problems, and solutions in every experience and every sphere of life in which you find yourself. You must also be looking to transfer new knowledge and understanding across domains, functions, and contexts. Learning in this framework embodies being actively aware of your developing self and responding flexibly to what is learned. So you have to ask yourself: do you make sure that you get value from every experience that you encounter, are you aware of the potential for learning to enhance your leadership ability?

As well as Learning Everywhere and Always, you will need to implicitly know and understand the strengths and weaknesses of your team.  Given the practical changes in the workplace, leaders increasingly lack physical interaction with their team, so the traditional leadership functions of motivating and directing become more challenging. With this in mind you will need to implicitly understand the importance of effectively DISTRIBUTING responsibilities, roles and tasks across your team.  Ultimately you will have a team of leaders comprised of individuals who can use their initiative, are self-motivated, committed and feel attachment to ‘something’ (given the increasingly fragmented nature of work this may not be to your organisation, but perhaps to their role or profession).  So again you need to think about what kind of team you are assembling and developing, but perhaps more important you will need to understand the importance of truly empowering key members which means distributing real power and decision making authority.  You will have to ask if you are really prepared to do that. 

Although understanding the importance of building your team through the effective distribution of power will become more vital, the fact remains that there will always be a place for you as a leader.  However, effective leaders cannot take this role for granted and need to continuously work to EARN RESPECT from all stakeholders. Your team will want to be led by someone who has vision and purpose but also possesses moral fibre and who will do the right thing for them and the organisation’s stakeholders.  Earning universal respect in an increasingly ambiguous world where your decisions will never satisfy everyone is becoming ever more difficult.  To help navigate through this ambiguity perhaps the best advice is to take a back to basics approach and ask some fundamental questions: Do I really communicate my purpose and vision to the team? Do I really inspire trust? Do I really focus on what is feasible? Do I really listen to my team members and express confidence in them? Do I really gather all available information before I make key decisions? 

As you can appreciate the common word in all these questions is ‘really’.  Perhaps more than any other stream of research authentic leadership has received the most coverage in the leadership journals recently.  In essence this research argues that authentic leaders know their real selves and their beliefs and behave according to their convictions. So it is the ‘real you’ that is important and the ultimate question you need to ask yourself is: Does my team see the real me? If you find it difficult to answer that question in absolute terms and you have said ‘sometimes’ then I would say you are fairly normal.  Being authentic and real is difficult; there are very natural fears about becoming exposed if we are shown ‘warts and all’, especially to a group we are responsible for managing.  However, increasingly we need to appreciate that employees want to understand where they really stand in your team and are becoming more adept at spotting fakes!  

So to conclude this piece I hope to have left you with some food for thought.  In terms of takeaways I hope by remembering the following mantra the real LEADER in you may emerge: Learn Everywhere and Always, Distribute and Earn Respect.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute professional or other advice.

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