To be a successful leader, you need to be able to:
- Establish a clear vision
- Share that vision with others, in a clear and compelling way
- Provide others with the resources to realise that vision
- Co-ordinate, the sometimes conflicting, interests of all stakeholders
But that’s not all. There is a fifth, often overlooked characteristic; the need to be flexible in your leadership style, dependent on the situation. A business with its back against the wall, requires a different style to one which is enjoying a profitable, steady state.
As people move into leadership positions – perhaps employing their first staff member, or leading a growing team as the business expands, they need to develop a wider set of skills.
Having the full range of leadership capabilities is dependent on persuasion and influence, networking, negotiation, team leadership, team working, cultural sensitivity, valuing difference, coaching, performance management and development, assessment, conflict management, assertiveness, strategic thinking, resource allocation, presentation skills and humility. Quite a demanding list.
The distinctive leaders set themselves apart, not by adherence to a particular leadership creed, but by the way they behave. The wider their behavioural repertoire, the more effective their leadership.
The good news is; behaviour can be changed. Most of the time you have control over your behaviour and can exercise choice about how you behave. Furthermore, behaviour breeds behaviour, and so what you say and do shapes the responses you get from others.
Research started in the 1970s and built upon since then has enabled leaders to master the skills of, for example, influencing and persuasion, by learning the skills underpinning the two most common persuasion styles: Push and Pull.
Each style is behaviourally distinctive and each is appropriate for different situations. The Push style goes like this:
- I have an idea or opinion that I share with you
- I tell you the reasons why it’s a good idea and/or why I’m correct
- You agree and you move your position.
Push style persuasion is the most commonly used. It works well in conditions where the influencer has positional authority, as is the case with senior leaders. And yet it’s only effective around half the time. Sometimes this is because you may be an apologetic or aggressive pusher. Another weakness is being a misjudged Pusher, where you reveal your solution early. In so doing, you under-estimate the strength of resistance you will encounter.
Take Alice for example – a middle manager in a multinational business. She needed to create a new direction for her team. In doing so, she articulated a clear, coherent plan and instructed each of her team as to who would do what, and by when. For her, the logic was clear, the detail was exemplary and she was in charge, so the team was bound to agree. Push style was a no-brainer. However, Alice had overlooked a fundamental question: How important was it that she gain everyone’s commitment to the plan? If engagement is essential, then a Pull style is much more likely to work.
Pullers use three behaviours in particular: Seeking Proposals (e.g. How should we best do this?) Seeking Information (e.g. Who has the relevant experience?) and the rare but highly prized skill of Building – extending or developing a proposal made by another person. Building is used much less frequently than is warranted. This is usually because the persuader is much more interested in her own ideas and fails to harness the suggestions of others. If Alice had focused on engaging her team, she would have used a Pull style, rather like this:
- Alice asks the team for their ideas
- They offer some options
- Alice then asks questions to explore their suggestions
- Alice builds on their suggestions
- Together, Alice and the team agree a way forward.
In this way, the level of commitment of the team increases in line with their engagement.
Pull style can also be effective in coaching others to use their resources and in fostering collaboration. Pull might take a little longer but the rewards outweigh the costs. For example, in a performance appraisal discussion, John wanted to convince Tony of the need to work on his presentation skills. Using a Pull style he was able to get a better understanding of why Tony’s presentation skills weren’t where they needed to be and together they explored various options for addressing the shortfall and Tony was committed to the outcome. The effort was worth the gain.
Developing behavioural flexibility is partly about knowing what to do and exercising those behaviours skilfully and partly about knowing what not to do and avoiding potentially costly mistakes. When asked how he learned to be a leader, Antoine de Saint Affrique, the CEO of the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate manufacturer, Barry Callebaut, replied: “I made sure I learned not only from the great leaders I was lucky to work for, but also from the less good ones. From them, I’ve tried to learn what not to do.”
Reflecting on your own leadership with humility and studying others’ behaviour as a leader and then changing and flexing as required, is the most important element of a successful leader.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ally Yates is author of ‘Utter Confidence: How what you say and do influences your effectiveness in business’ and an expert on Behaviour Analysis and the interactions that define us. She combines a deep understanding of people and how to achieve results, based on her many years’ experience working with large corporate clients around the world.
Since 2000 Ally has been working as an independent consultant, facilitator, trainer and coach. She has collaborated with international business schools and has received national and international training awards.