Chapter 9 Well, Nobody’s Perfect – No Cape Required

CHAPTER 9

Well, Nobody’s Perfect

The man who smiles when things go wrong has thought of someone to blame it on.

—Robert Bloch

The show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a huge success, shown in around 160 countries.

The show did have an issue in one country, however, at the point when contestants ask the audience for their advice. What normally happens is that the audience genuinely give the best answer they can. However, in this one country, the audience tends to deliberately mislead the contestants by voting for the wrong answer. It’s a cultural attitude toward another’s success—or failure.

Leadership is a daily practice, a journey, not a destination. We believe that journeys should be as fulfilling—or even as enjoyable—as the destination. That means we practice, and sometimes fail, to be good leaders. Sometimes, it’s not the thing we fail at that’s the problem, but our attitude toward failure itself.

In leadership development, we often use our leadership 360 survey (“my360plus”) to gather feedback around the capability or competence model that the organization uses.

The purpose of this is to support the individual in developing their leadership capacity.

Raters don’t all behave in the same way as the game show audience; however, the degree to which they will be objective varies depending on their own motivation, the quality of the questions in the 360, and the capability model itself.

I worked in one organization where they linked the results of the 360 to pay.

It went one of two ways: you got together with your colleagues to create a pact whereby everybody rated everybody well; some of the more competitive individuals went off and ranked everybody else as low as they could, in the belief that this would enhance their own chances of a good pay raise.

The “link to pay” idea quickly feel by the wayside.

Leadership Essentials: 360° Feedback

We ran a leadership development programme for an international organization in four countries across three continents.

One of the key elements was a 360 survey. There were around a hundred people in the program, and we always expected there to be some variation across that group. Inevitably, when selecting a talent pool of that size, there will be differences in their abilities.

What we hadn’t factored in were the cultural differences that led people to rate their colleagues in different ways.

Several individuals were rated at the highest possible level in every single one of the twelve competences. This may have felt good for the rater, but it was hard for the individual to select an area to work on.

I’m not arguing that a 360 has no value; when it is well designed, well briefed, combined with other sources, and debriefed effectively by the boss or a coach, it has huge value.

It’s about our expectations of people, set against whatever leadership model your organization uses.

In the preceding examples, the results will be skewed toward greatness or indifference because of the biases and subjectivity that people might be tempted to bring in.

Leadership Essentials: Neutralize Limitations

But even when ratings are done with the best intentions, with a desire to support the individual to improve, there are often inherent flaws in our expectations of the process and the people.

Most performance management systems have an implicit expectation that we should be excellent everywhere, and that the way to achieve this is to focus on, and improve, our weaknesses.

This approach is fundamentally flawed.

Not only is it impossible to be good at everything; it’s also untrue to assume there is only one approach to successful leadership.

Look at the diversity of approaches that different leaders take. No one would say that Winston Churchill and Gandhi shared the same style, but, equally, no one could contest the huge successes that each brought in their own way.

Our first instinct, though, when we see any form of appraisal is still to go look for the weaknesses. We are drawn there like a moth to the flame, with predictably painful outcomes.

If we are the recipient of this feedback, we might start to argue with it, to justify ourselves against this benchmark.

If we are the manager giving the feedback, the danger is that we see this person in front of us as being flawed, because she hasn’t impressed in every competence. It impacts on our overall view of performance in a negative way.

One organization that we work with had, until recently, dozens of competences explained in a guide of around 120 pages. It would be crazy to assume that anybody could be good at all of them.

And if it takes a 120-page manual to explain the behaviors, the chances of them being applied in any consistent or meaningful way is slight.

The same is true even when your organization uses only eight or 12 or 16 competences.

Nobody is going to be good at everything, and the danger is we often waste time trying to “fix” the weaknesses when the same level of investment building their strengths would have a far higher return on investment.

You grow most in your areas of greatest strength. You will improve the most, be the most creative, be the most inquisitive, and bounce back the fastest in those areas where you have already shown some natural advantage over everyone else—your strengths. This doesn’t mean you should ignore your weaknesses. It just means you’ll grow most where you’re already strong.

Marcus Buckingham1

That’s not to say that limitations, or “derailers” as they’re sometimes known, shouldn’t be addressed. If a behavior is having a negative impact on others, then it’s a priority. Likewise, if a behavior is negatively impacting a leader’s ability to deliver on their role, it’s a priority.

Leadership Essentials: Develop Strengths

I was recently in Zambia, running a development centre. We had a day off and visited the Chaminuka game reserve. The highlight for me was the chance to interact with two 6-month-old cheetah cubs.

I had no idea how kindly they would feel toward humans and began to run through my list of strengths to see if any would be of use to me.

The team were trying to reintroduce cheetahs to the wild. At the same time, they are using the cubs as part of an education program.

They take them to schools, to inspire the next generation to value these endangered species. The worst predators for cheetahs are, unsurprisingly, men. It was clear the handlers loved their job, had a passion for nature, and reveled in showing us humans how to respect these elegant creatures.

When working with leaders, we use the Clifton Strengthsfinder,2 a great tool for assessing key talents and strengths. It’s based on research around how our brains evolve in the first 13 or so years of our life.

Pathways determined by our genes are strengthened through our experience and lead us to build talents. For example, some people acquire a thirst for learning; others may be driven to maximize their efforts in any walk of life.

Or you may love working one to one with people or be a great communicator. All these traits start early in life. Understanding them is key to finding the role that really suits you. When we play to our strengths, we quickly find ourselves in the zone, where time passes, and we achieve at our best.

One of my top 5 is a thing called “WOO”—Winning Others Over. It means I love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over.

I derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with another person. I wondered if this would extend to winning over cheetahs.

I got on well enough—the cheetah I was stroking was purring in much the same way as a domestic cat, so I felt I must have been doing something right. Of course, it’s one thing to interact with a young animal; I’m not so sure it would work the same way with a hungry adult!

Context matters: if there are serious shortcomings in an area that is vital to the role, then some action is needed. When designing those actions, you will have more success if you draw on the strengths to try to address the shortcomings.

Leadership Essentials: Values

We also recommend looking at the values that the individual has. If we can plan some improvements that harness both strengths and values, then the chances of success are greatly enhanced.

Values are those moral codes, or beliefs, that are embedded in our character through our family, education, and cultural influences that become an integral part of who we are.

I once had a coaching client who was being marked down for the way they managed people.

Knowing the individual, I was surprised, and when we talked about it, it transpired they were constantly late with handling and writing up the performance reviews of their people.

When probed, they confessed that they found the whole process to be arduous, bureaucratic, and inefficient. Through coaching, though, they had already revealed two resources to draw on; they connected well with people, loved having conversations, and were genuinely curious about others. The second thing to draw on was a strong value around developing people.

By using these two values, they stopped seeing the performance review through the lens of bureaucracy and were able to be more successful, both as a leader themselves and by developing others.

They also saw ways to improve the process and fed back to the organization changes that made the whole system work more effectively for everybody.

Working with an individual’s strengths and values, rather than against them, sets people free to direct their energy, time, and resources more effectively.

Leadership Essentials: Develop the Team

Another way to approach the shortcomings in one individual is to look at the strengths of the team as a whole.

It is quite likely that someone else in the team is better equipped to do those tasks and indeed may even enjoy them.

However, imagine a team leader who, because she doesn’t have a strength in a particular area, believes that the whole team thinks this way. Some people, in the service of being conscientious (a character value) may try and “protect” the team by hanging onto the task themselves, while, unbeknown to them, someone else would positively relish that challenge!

We can and should address peoples’ shortcomings, but the most successful approach and the best use of our time is to focus on the strengths, not just in isolation, but with an eye to both the existing role and the next one in that individual’s career.

We also need to analyze the needs of the role and compare that with the strengths of the individual. That might lead us to change aspects of the role as well as to design development actions that build on the strengths.

Those actions do have to look to the future; why wait until the individual is in the new post before equipping them to handle it well?

Look for opportunities to develop behaviors now that will improve their performance in their current role and maximize the chances of success in the next one.

In one organization I worked in, my PA was doing a fine job, and it was apparent that she had the potential to do more. Part of the role was to plan and organize training courses for building internal coaches.

Following discussions with her about her strengths and where her career might go, we agreed that she should attend the training course. It turned out she had a natural talent for this. The opportunity for her to use this skill fully was limited, in part because the organization was male dominated and, on average, older; not many of them would look to be coached by a much younger woman, even though we knew she could do a fine job.

She made an exceptional contribution on one training course, where we were introducing the skills to 16- and 17-year-old apprentices.

More importantly, the skills served her well as she moved up the ladder in HR, not just through formal coaching but also as a way of building a coaching style into her leadership and her interactions.

We need to deploy people in a way that is best for both them and the organization. That means we need to change our thinking about people and our expectations of them.

It’s also important that we design our leadership competence models and the training we build around them in a way that reflects this reality.

The Evolution of Leadership

Let’s look at it through the way leadership has evolved over the years.

Leadership isn’t just about hierarchy, position, or status; it’s about success and about people who take ownership and responsibility.

If you manage people or provide thought leadership, then a well-designed and well-researched model will help you be more successful. It will support your team to achieve more too, because the people who rely on your good work will benefit and your organization will be more successful.

In the middle of the last century, what we needed from our leaders was stability and efficiency. Organizations that were run well, with good continuity, efficient processes, and reliability, prospered. The pace of change was slow and business models were relatively simple.

Organizations had the luxury of time to analyze what they were doing and make incremental change, often trialed through pilots before scaling up. Many built on the successful models of automation and “assembly line” processes. They were able to grow through “time and motion” studies.

The approach to leadership in this generation is analogous to what many people see as the management side of the “management versus leadership” debate: doing things right and managing processes and systems, whereas “leadership” is doing the right things.

Leadership was often autocratic and commands were passed down. The managers in the hierarchy usually ran their teams in the same way as the company was run: the manager clearly in charge, giving orders. People weren’t required to be creative; they were expected to follow orders and deliver. You were deferential to the people above you in the hierarchy and dictatorial to the people below you.

And in that environment, in that time and place, it was usually a recipe for success.

But the pace of change increased, complexity grew, and the luxury of time became scarcer.

This summary of leadership prior to VUCA World is, of course, a generalization. There have always been great examples of good leadership of the kind we would know today and organizations that were more successful as a result.

VUCA World and the Global Challenges

But there’s no doubt we now live in an era tagged “VUCA”: the era of volatility, uncertainty, change, and ambiguity.

We also face three challenges that the bestselling author Dan Pink cited in his book A Whole New Mind 3: “Abundance, Asia and Automation.” And, to quote General Petraeus,4 there are now four global revolutions: IT, energy, manufacturing, and life sciences.

As consumers, we now have enormous choice. For organizations to survive, merely producing functional goods will never be enough. Look at the money spent on well-designed mundane objects such as an Alessi lemon squeezer, as an example.

For the West, the growth of Asia has increased competition, not only in the production of cheap goods (relative to home-produced goods), but also through growing numbers of highly educated knowledge workers.

The final challenge, automation, covers areas where traditional roles have been replaced through automation. This now covers areas such as legal documents that you can download for free or guides to conveyancing, undermining traditional jobs.

My own GP recently bemoaned the rise of Dr. Google and the impact it had on his relationships with his patients.

All of this shows how the world of work is changing radically. We can’t stick to 20th century models of leadership; that too needs to change radically, because as leaders, managers, or business owners we will struggle to survive, let alone thrive.

We need people and organizations to be more creative, more adaptable, and to evolve more quickly than the competition.

This won’t happen with hierarchical, command and control structures.

That worked when all we needed to know was how many widgets to make that day, and commands could come down the line, but it’s very different today.

There’s a parallel with evolution here; Charles Darwin is often misquoted in talking about the survival of the fittest.

What he said was: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.”

So organizations with a monoculture, rigid processes, and well-tuned systems work extremely well until change happens. Diversity, creativity, entrepreneurial qualities, and the occasional maverick may be more important.

It’s certainly true that you are less likely to have people challenge the status quo or come up with radically new ideas if there is a culture of conformity.

This is especially true when combined with a blame culture.

We Need to Talk about the “F” Word: Failure

When failure happens, as it inevitably will, if the organization invests time and money in blame rather than learning from failure, people stop taking risks and organizations stagnate.

Failure isn’t just about doubting ourselves; it’s also about doubting others. These are vicious circles that play directly into the zero sum “lose/lose” mentality.

Failure paralyses and demotivates. Some people believe that we are motivated away from the fear of failure; that it spurs people on.

It’s relatively normal for people to fear failure, and we’re not suggesting that we ignore peoples’ feelings, but rather that it be a temporary visit to the fear factory, instead of moving in permanently.

For some people, risk and challenge are spurs, and these feelings can be used as resources to motivate people and teams.

Our primary approach is to help people identify their vision of success; identify what they want to achieve, or identify what “good” or “success” looks like, or feels like. Orienting toward success is energizing and empowering.

If we’re looking at blockages, or what’s stopping us, our focus is on the problem. If we’re orientated toward possibilities, new paths can open up in front of us.

With that backdrop, we need to find new ways of leading.

The Importance of a Well-designed Leadership 360

Prof Harry Schroder, a psychology professor at Princeton University, was fascinated about why some organizations were able to cope with increasing complexity and rapid change better than others.

As a result of his team’s research, his book Managerial Competence: The Key to Excellence5 was featured in Personnel Today’s seven must read books.

He concluded that there are core skills common to organizations, regardless of professional or technical skills.

He found a series of “high-performance leadership behaviors” that are better indicators of success.

Part of the elegance of this model is that it applies equally (if differently) to a chief executive of a global multinational and to an individual managing no staff.

This means it is widely applicable.

When leadership is about people taking responsibility and taking ownership wherever they are in the organization and about people creating success for themselves and the team, the organization, and indeed in society as well, then we find the high-performance model supports this well.

What I especially like about it is the understanding that we are never going to be great at all 12 behaviors.

The rigorous research behind it allows us to benchmark the mix of behaviors we’d expect against the leadership complexity, from an individual contributor through a manager, a manager of managers, and right up to a global CEO.

There are three main elements to this model.

  • The first is the behaviors themselves.
  • The second is the level of performance for each behavior.
  • The third is the relationship between the complexity of the role that you play and the mix of the first two elements.

The 12 behaviors fall into four clusters: Think, Involve, Inspire, Do.

The Think cluster covers the qualities we use to gather information and make decisions—how broadly we search for information when presented with a problem; how well we create robust ideas, ideally tackling more than one problem; and, finally, how flexible our thinking is, whether we have a plan B.

Involve is about getting other people on board; there’s a great quote from one of my favorite shows, The West Wing, when the president seems not to be showing the leadership people expect.

The vice president says, “You know what they call a leader with no followers? Just a guy taking a walk.”6

Involve is about skills that build empathy; getting teams to work well together and working one to one with people, coaching and mentoring them. (Plot spoiler: The president superbly outflanks his opponents and his poll ratings surge.)

Once we have explored great ideas and have a team around us, we need to Inspire them. People need confidence in themselves, and the leader has a huge role to play here. The leader also has to project confidence to the outside world. Communication skills are vital, and the subtle art of influencing comes into play here too.

Finally, for success to happen, the team actually have to Do something. This cluster is about taking action. It’s also about continuous improvement; reviewing what worked well and what you might do differently in order to improve. Ultimately, it’s about the focus you place on stakeholders, customers, patients, or service users, whatever term works for you.

There are five levels at which each behavior is assessed. The lowest is called negative; actions here have the potential to cause damage to the organization. The second level is just undeveloped; we don’t notice anything. Level three adds value through the use of a behavior, and level four shows strength consistently and at a higher level, in a behavior.

What I like about the fifth level in this model is that it isn’t about just doing more, but about creating systems and processes that encourage this behavior in everyone in the organization. It’s about making it sustainable.

Finally, the more senior you are, and the greater leadership responsibility you have, the more you need to be demonstrating the behaviors, and at higher levels.

At the International Leadership Association Conference (2017), Petraeus talked about the leadership qualities now demanded by the revolutions and changes mentioned:

  • Get the big policy and strategy ideas (think).
  • Communicate the big idea (inspire).
  • Oversee the delivery, tactics, and metrics (do).
  • Create a formal process to revise big ideas (do).

It’s understandable that an ex-army general would place less value on the involve behaviors, but armies have very particular ways of getting people on board, not all of which transfer well to civilian life.

The Schroder particular leadership behavior model also comes with a well-crafted 360. To beat our own drum, this is a model that we use internationally, with many client organizations. We have found it sufficiently all-encompassing and flexible enough for many organizations to adopt a variant of it.

Good design in a 360 ensures that the questions can be answered by someone who doesn’t need to understand the technicalities of the behavior and the different levels at which someone can operate.

In other words, they don’t need 120 pages of explanation.

It means that a process that is inevitably subjective, because it involves human beings, is made more objective.

Leadership Styles, as Distinct from Leadership Behaviors

In addition to the behaviors that leaders display, which are vital to success, people have different styles of leadership. Often this is just one default style, but the best leaders have a range of styles that they adapt to, depending on the context.

In their book Primal Leadership/The New Leaders,7 the authors discuss six leadership styles based on emotional intelligence.

The styles are Visionary, Coaching, Democratic, Affiliated, Commanding, and Pacesetting.

As already argued, it will be hard for any one individual to be equally adept at all six styles. However, we should certainly strive to use more than just our default style.

This is especially true where the prevailing style in an organization is just one of these, because, quite often, it is the commanding style of leadership.

This is a cycle that needs to be broken.

Leadership styles pass down the generations as emerging leaders look to their elders for role models.

The VUCA World of work demands other styles of leadership, and all six styles have their place.

However, in our experiences the commanding and pacesetting styles are often overused.

It is possible to learn how to flex styles. The best way to do this is, again, to look at strengths and values.

Flexing helps identify which of the styles would be most easy to step into next. As people develop as leaders, there may be more opportunities to flex into, and increase the range of styles available.

Worksheet: Stimulus Questions

This chapter explores the, often unexpressed, assumption that a manager or leader has to be great in all areas of competence.

Leadership is a daily practice, a journey, not a destination. That means we practice, and sometimes fail, to be good leaders.

Nobody’s perfect, yet hero figures are expected to succeed or risk being seen as “failures.”

When reflecting on the content of this chapter, you may find it useful to answer these questions:

The Lens of Strengths

  • What lens are we viewing people through, the lens of their strengths or of their shortcomings?
  • How can you use their strengths in a way that is best for the organization, the team, and for them?

Personal Development Questions

  • As a leader, what are my own strengths, beliefs, and default leadership style?
  • Where would be the easiest place for me to develop and grow as a leader?

Influence

How can I influence the organization to promote some of these ideas?

Behavioral Mix

In your opinion, what’s the mix of leadership behaviors your organization needs most:

  • Thinking behaviors
  • Influencing behaviors
  • Inspiring behaviors
  • Delivering behaviors

As above, use percentages to define what the mix might look like, for example, 25 percent for all 4, and so on.

Notes

1.M. Buckingham. 2008. “The Truth About You: Your Secret to Success”, p.15, Thomas Nelson Inc.

2.J. Asplund, S. Agrawal, T. Hodges, J. Harter, and S.J. Lopez. 2007. Updated March 2014. The Clifton Strengthsfinder ®2.0 Technical Report: Development and Validation (Washington, DC: Gallup Inc.).

3.D. Pink. 2005. A Whole New Mind (Rolling Meadows, IL: Riverside Books).

4.D. Petraeus, October 2017, quoted from an interview at the International Leadership Association Conference (ILA), Brussels.

5.H.M. Schroder. 1989. Managerial Competence: The Key to Excellence (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt).

6.The West Wing (TV Series), “Shutdown” (season 5, episode 8), 2003, Dir. by Christopher Misiano, Writing Credits, Aaron Sorkin (created by), Mark Goffman (written by), Josh Singer (staff writer).

7.D. Goleman, R. Boyatzis, and A. McKee. 2002. The New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results (London, UK: Little Brown).