Why won’t my employees just do what I tell them? Why am I struggling to motivate my team? Why aren’t they giving me the performance I need? These are common questions that plague many leaders. Often, companies promote to leadership employees who are competent technical professionals — who know how to build a bridge, negotiate a deal or justify a capital expenditure. But whether holding the office of a middle manager or a CEO, technical skills usually won’t help an individual be a better leader.
But effective leadership has an undeniable business value. In one study, Jack Zenger and colleagues (“How Extraordinary Leaders Double Profits”) examined the best (top 10 percent) and worst (bottom 10 percent) leaders at a large commercial bank. On average, the worst leaders’ departments experienced net losses of $1.2 million, while the best leaders boasted profits of $4.5 million.
Sink or Swim Is Not a Plan
As any disgruntled employee will attest, exceptional leadership isn’t commonplace. One recent Center for Creative Leadership study reveals that up to 50 percent of managers are ineffective. And sadly, their companies probably aren’t doing much to help their managers. In the first place, they probably use the wrong criteria to select leaders by focusing on technical — rather than leadership — skills. Secondly, most invest precious little to develop leaders, and training is often an isolated, one-size-fits-all event. Without follow-up, 90 percent of information from training programs disappears after three months!
Without organizational support, leaders wanting to improve are left to their own devices. But when they search on Amazon for “leadership books,” they’re assaulted with more than 100,000 options! No wonder leadership feels so complex and impossible.
Luckily, there’s good news. Though psychologists used to believe leaders were “born,” recent research tells a much different story: Leadership is an acquirable skill. Recently, a study by Richard Arvey at Singapore’s NUS Business School revealed that a whopping 70 percent of leadership is learned. That means anyone can learn to become an effective leader.
Two Behaviors All Leaders Must Master
For decades, scientists have known everything we need to know about how successful leaders behave. It’s like finding the TV remote tucked under a couch cushion after hours of searching elsewhere: The secrets to leadership really have been here all along.
In 1945, a group Ohio State University researchers set out to disprove the notion that leadership was an inborn personality trait. With 70 International Harvester Company foremen as their subjects, they discovered that leadership effectiveness was related to the presence of two independent behaviors.
Firstly, effective leaders showed consideration, displaying support, compassion and friendliness to their team. Secondly, they initiated structure. They clearly defined the role each employee played and drove their performance. We’ll call these behaviors “People” and “Results,” respectively.
Managers likely feel an inherent tension between People and Results. On one hand, they must build relationships by connecting with their team, earning trust and motivating them. On the other, they must drive top- and bottom-line results through their performance and productivity. I can drive them to perform, leaders think, OR I can be their friend:
People . . . . . . . . . . . X . . . . . . . . . . Results
Left-Side Leader Right-Side Leader
Depending on the individual’s upbringing, culture and role models, the leader will find a comfort position between these behaviors. For a select few, that position is in the middle, leveraging each outcome to support the other. The rest fall somewhere to the left or the right, and some to the extremes:
The Cool Parent: Left-side leaders act like the “cool parent.” Focusing on the happiness of their team at all costs, they don’t set expectations, give honest feedback or make tough decisions. Working for a left-side leader might feel pleasant … at first. But as soon as an employee needs tough — but true — feedback, this leader would freeze like a deer in headlights.
The Trail of Dead Bodies Creator: Right-side leaders drive results so aggressively that they leave a “trail of dead bodies.” This leader requires grueling hours, is never satisfied and withholds recognition lest employees become complacent. Though right-side leaders help employees “up their game” initially, in the long-term, the employees suffer both physically (from overwork) and mentally (from lack of appreciation).
The best leaders are able to move to the middle, focusing on people and results. These bankable leaders create prosperity in the form of achievement, health, happiness and wealth for themselves, their team and their organization. The best managers are seemingly a walking contradiction, achieving all of these things at once:
- Caring for and understanding team members and setting aggressive performance targets
- Helping team members succeed and expecting responsibility for successes and failures
- Providing recognition and pushing continuous improvement
- Helping each employee enjoy his or her job and ensuring everyone maximally contributes
Three Actions to Become More Bankable
Gather the Facts. Just like a person can’t start a weight-loss program without getting on a scale, leaders must begin their journey by learning the truth about themselves. We’re often the worst evaluators of our behavior. While a leader may place himself in the middle of the continuum, believing he places an equal emphasis on People and Results, his team might say, “Are you kidding? He’s a total slave driver!” Leaders can use their resources and gather the facts, whether it’s through an assessment or feedback in the form of conversations.
Be Laser-Focused. For executive teams, research by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi of Booz & Company shows that as their quantity of goals increases, revenue declines. Similarly, leaders often choose too many development goals. Leaders have the greatest chance for victory by developing one thing at a time. It is far better to make progress in one area than to make little or none in five!
Practice Daily. A leader may well have had a development plan before — that gathered dust in a drawer. He was probably engaging in Delusional Development: the futile hope that just by wanting to get better at something and knowing enough to be dangerous, he would show improvement. The amount of deliberate practice a leader chooses will be proportionate to his improvement. The journey to Bankable Leadership is like learning a violin concerto: First learn the concepts (reading music) and behaviors (playing the violin). Then practice every day to create beautiful music.
Bankable Leadership Happens Day by Day
From music to science to athletics, people with average talent have achieved extraordinary things. Scientists used to think that superior athletes achieved greatness because of biological differences. But we now know that the best marathon runners, for example, simply train more in the weeks leading up to the marathon.
The same is true for exceptional leaders. That’s why the “I just wasn’t born to be a leader” excuse doesn’t hold water. A person may not want to be a leader, which is entirely different. But with focus and commitment, anyone can become a more effective leader. The daily commitment it requires isn’t always sexy, but the person who follows it will become a more bankable leader — guaranteed.
Dr. Tasha Eurich
A proud leadership geek, executive coach, speaker and author, Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., is the author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom-Line Results, and the Power to Deliver Both (www.bankableleadership.com). Dr. Eurich pairs her scientific grounding in human behavior with a practical approach to solving leadership challenges. The majority of Dr. Eurich’s work has been with executives in large Fortune 500 organizations, including Western Union, the City of Cincinnati and HCA. She holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and B.A.s in Theater and Psychology, and serves on the faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership.