Good and outstanding leadership: what’s the difference? By Ian Lawson


View Original / Guardian UK, Mon 25 Jun 2012 06.30 BST

The challenges faced by organisations and society have always required leadership that can engage people and their talents and innovation. Within the context of the post-banking crisis economic environment, a radical move is needed to embrace new approaches to leadership by the majority of organisations and managers – rather than the continued emphasis on the beliefs and behaviours which have eroded trust and led to a tightening of hierarchy and control in many places of work.

Here are five of the key distinctions.

Outstanding leaders see their role as enabling, supporting and developing leadership throughout the organisation at all levels. This does not simply assume that a select cadre of senior managers and individuals on talent programmes hold the answer (though these are important as enablers); it is about collective capability and confidence, not classic heroic leadership. This is why the word “leadership” is used not just “leaders”. In many ways they see their role as developing leaders not followers and assume that the ability and desire to demonstrate leadership is widely distributed if only it were allowed the opportunity to flourish.

They understand that engaged people are the only route to sustained high performance and innovation and therefore developing people’s capability and particularly confidence is of utmost importance. It is their key function to ensure people are engaged. This means that every task, project or interaction is seen as a potential double whammy. It is a chance to get something done to a high quality and it poses an opportunity to develop employees through trusting them, exhibiting belief in their capability and coaching/mentoring them to succeed.

A coaching approach is of vital importance to this and is centred on understanding that the leader’s focus should be on the way people think rather than just on the task. An appreciative inquiry approach leads to looking at what works and building on this – rather than getting mired in the weeds of old problems.

Outstanding leadership requires an understanding that risk needs to be embraced. Outstanding leadership acknowledges that although this may mean more things go wrong the leader has to resist the temptation to save the team at the first wobble; they are mindful of the wider impact they can have on ensuring learning and confidence are built and that people know the organisation will back thoughtful, responsible and innovative approaches. The days of managers scaling hierarchical heights on the basis of carefully constructed avoidance of any risk are surely now at an end. The days of believing that efficiencies can be achieved by escalating decision-making and authority levels away from those in touch with day-to-day business without destroying confidence, self-worth and effectiveness fall in the same category.

The very best approach we found to communication involved thinking in a much more holistic way. Emphasis was put on creating opportunities for dialogue, making sense of situations and possibilities and building relationships to foster trust, respect and openness. The best leaders, especially at a senior level, are keenly aware that they “are the message” and that everything they do and say, or do not do and say, mould the context for how colleagues make decisions about the integrity of their leader’s role. Outstanding leaders consider holistic approaches and devote significant time to sharing with colleagues, especially during times of great change, rather than just focussing on a top down communication plan which goes little beyond an information plan and a brief opportunity for clarifying questions.

Lastly outstanding leadership requires systemic thinking. Such leaders are mindful of the consequences of their actions in the short, medium and long-term on both hard outcomes and the way they demonstrate commitment to organisation values. They are extremely reflective about the impact they have from an off the cuff remark to a major project. Embracing opportunities to raise self-awareness via formal tools (360degrees, surveys, coaching) to the feedback and observations, which colleagues feel able to make owing to the effort they have put in to creating a climate of trust and openness.

We have a superb opportunity to re-think how we go about creating dynamic and high performing environments at work and many organisations are already doing so. Recent leadership breakfast sessions for non-profit sector managers supporting some of these principles have been organised by Cass CCE. Check out the summary and ask yourself how it fits with your own beliefs and, if it does, what can you do in your own workplace to embed some of these principles?

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