Take Me to Your Leader

22 November 2010 Patrick Dailey

Organisations need business leaders who can adapt to changing circumstances, inspire confidence in the board and stakeholders, and meet challenges with equanimity, writes Patrick Dailey.

In the tempestuous world of modern business, leaders must adapt to changing conditions. If they can't, they fail. To be successful, they must be able to confidently switch between reactive and dynamic approaches. The ability to be agile and nimble is as important as being proactive and capable of driving innovation. It requires skill to transition between these two positions.

Leaders must also be able to identify and tackle threats (see table 1). These challenges are somewhat controllable and require proactive leadership tactics. Reactive challenges test leaders' early warning instincts, rapid response mobilisation, course correction skills and savvy.

Adapting to a changing market

Stakeholders expect leaders to bring focus to a company, drive performance, offer transparency and provide support. However, the wider world is much more of a determinant. Concepts about leadership, therefore, need to be updated and refocused as a consequence of the changing business demands of the 21st century.

An increased emphasis must be placed on the external arena where influence, driving ideas and connecting networks, as well as tactics to protect the reputation of a company, are essential for its sustained performance and the longevity of its leader.

Inspire confidence

"The path toward a sustainable competitive advantage is guided by men and women of character and razor-sharp vigilance."

Figure 1 illustrates the primary roles essential for executive success within a contemporary commercial enterprise. These roles define an executive's contribution to an organisation's mission and its long-term viability.  Exceptional leaders should be able to articulate a convincing case for change and chart the path forward with a committed coalition. Their organisations are alert to game-changing signals in the marketplace that indicate risk or opportunity and have an astute sense of timing for moving forward.

These organisations are rarely surprised and invest in renewal and innovation. Leaders should understand their risk tolerance levels and avoid banking on ‘magic bullet' strategies that put people and the enterprise in unreasonable jeopardy. If the direction and the timing are right, then the risk is acceptable. Leaders must also be motivated managers.

They should be able to accelerate cycle times and drive their organisations. This can be done by setting a high standard and through solving so breakdowns are understood, resolved and continuous improvement is woven into the fabric of the operation. These organisations may not always be fun places to work, but they are superb places to learn and for teams to excel.

Another key requirement is the ability to attract, develop and retain exceptional talent. Constructive conflict is to be expected and should lead to collaboration and the pursuit of excellence. Destructive conflict cannot be tolerated but contrarian views should be heard.

Leaders are visible symbols of character and competitive leadership in the marketplace; they decipher how far, fast and long an organisation can be driven with its productivity and morale intact. Their teams win today's competitive battles and have the reserve and resolve to come back tomorrow to compete again.

Core capabilities

The ability to influence stakeholders has intensified during the past 20 years. Strong leaders need to look and act the part, using presentation skills to build rapport. They also need to make and keep promises. An ability to demonstrate ethics and trust are needed when dealing with investors, employees, customers and suppliers; the ‘whole truth' should be offered and expected from others.

Productive relationships and coalitions should be long standing and treated as reliable conduits for information, insight and support. Highly credible individuals keep their boards informed and seek their advice; they do not treat them as ceremonial bodies or rubber stamps for approval. Strong leaders also provide clear and simple contact with the media and regulators and are skilled in presenting a point of view to influence other opinion leaders into taking action.

At their core, leaders need critical thinking capabilities and temperament. These elements serve as the foundation of our personality and form the control centre of our propensity to adapt and adjust. Critical thinking is the level of cognitive complexity and process we use in perception as well as decision-making.

Starting with the examination of context variables, we set parameters for our choices, gather qualitative and quantitative data during an analytic phase, and weigh and rank potential outcomes during the decision-making phase. We tend to work through the process at a particular pace to form a decision and make a choice.

"Constructive conflict is to be expected and should lead to collaboration and the pursuit of excellence."

Temperament is mood – the ‘hard wired' filter that individuals use to interpret and deal with situations and experience, often in different ways from one another. Often we disguise our temperament, but it remains a fixed ‘base layer' throughout our lives and is the foundation of our personality.

From this base layer, we open ourselves up to experimentation and learning. We develop adaptive instincts, inclinations and behaviours in varying degrees of comfort and mastery.

Exceptional contribution

Figure 1 offers a straightforward presentation of the four primary roles that must be successfully fulfilled by senior executives in commercial organisations. The model balances long-range strategic intent with daily operational focus: commercial pursuits with consideration for people, their values and needs; and an internal focus on talent, teams, and culture with wide-ranging external coalitions, shareholders and network alliances intended to protect and advance the brand.

A strict formulaic approach to 21st century leadership is a folly. For modern senior leaders to make an exceptional contribution, they must be comfortable and competent with their own adaptability and resist typecasting.

They must oversee organisations which are adaptive and skilfully lead internal processes, operations and people.

The path toward a sustainable competitive advantage is guided by men and women of character and razor-sharp vigilance, who are able to invigorate their multinational, intergenerational enterprise, through periodic change and redirection, protect their brand reputation with ethical behaviour and good governance, contribute to their communities, and genuinely connect with stakeholders.

Figure 1 - Roles for executive success.
Table1 – Challenges faced by 21st century leaders.