Brush up leadership skills

Be a top boss

By Persephone Nicholas    

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the endless immensity of the sea.
 – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th-century French novelist and aviator

Teaching employees to yearn for the endless immensity of the sea is no easy task. Yet effective leaders are distinguished from managers by their big picture thinking and inspiring employees to share their vision is a prerequisite for successful leadership, according to Bruce McKern, professor of international business at the University of Sydney.

McKern says it’s a big job and not for the faint-hearted. "Leadership is a very difficult and noble undertaking and has very broad responsibilities. The leader brings to the organisation the necessary framework for it to perform well and is involved in setting the strategy for the organisation which may or may not require substantial change.”

The task demands more than micro-management, he says. "The challenging global environment leaders face today requires them to shift from seeing their role as resource allocators to being institutional leaders, who create a purpose and mission for the organisation, challenge its assumptions and face reality, stretch its horizons and articulate the values by which it will be motivated.”

McKern says charisma is no substitute for effectiveness. "We focus too much on so-called charismatic leaders; leaders who appear to be very much in the news, who are very concerned about publicity,” he says.

It’s about more than being a figurehead. "The kind of leader I regard as strong may not appear to be charismatic but has a strong view on what is needed for the company and is enabled to bring people together in such a way they work towards achieving the changes that have to be made; so, determined about getting the company to face its problems, but often humble in their personal style and aware of the importance of contributions of other people.

Most effective leaders are effective because they get other people to perform well.”

He says the best leader for a company is often someone who has been a leader before.

"Experience is a great teacher. For a large company like a bank or a mining company it’s a good idea to look around the world to find people who have faced similar challenges before. Running a big international company is different from running a more Australian-focused company. A person with that experience brings a different set of skills, particularly in dealing with politics and the wide range of stakeholders one finds in other countries. That’s important.”

Virginia Mansell, managing director of executive coaching, mentoring and leadership development organisation the Stephenson Mansell Group, agrees. She says research shows that improving management performance and developing leaders are keys for longer-term sustainable growth in Australia.

She says emotional intelligence skills are particularly vital for effective leadership. "Emotional intelligence is one of the most important components going into management and leadership, particularly higher up in an organisation, in the people management side of roles.”

Mansell says it’s a skill that can take years to develop. "Over the last 18 months there have been a lot of younger leaders in their 40s coming through,” she says.

"They are very bright, and have fantastic technical and analytical skills. But they don’t have the years of experience of the rough and tumble in an organisation, of being able to develop emotional intelligence and people skills, and dealing with the complexity that is thrown at them all the time.”

An organisation’s culture is determined by its head.

"The leader sets the culture by who they are as a person and as a leader, what they project and role model through their people, how they work with their boards and their executive teams. To build a collaborative empowering culture [that] has an impact on the bottom line they need to demonstrate collaboration, effective communication and create a rich learning environment in which people can maximise their potential and feel aligned and energised from the top down.”

She believes effective leadership has an influence on the values and behaviour within an organisation.

"If you have high performance teams who are more creative, innovative and operationally effective, then their levels of engagement are much higher. You get a lot more discretionary effort. When people go to work feeling motivated, enthusiastic and aligned to their organisation, they’ll do cartwheels for their bosses. Levels of absenteeism and turnover drop, so you see a direct return on investment.”

Frances Feenstra says it’s high time Australia realised the value of women as potential leaders. Feenstra is chairwoman of the 100% Project, an organisation dedicated to creating change so "100 per cent of Australia’s leadership talent, female and male, equally contribute to our social and economic future”.

"To develop more world-class leaders you probably want to stop ignoring 50 per cent of your [talent] pipeline. It reduces the competition generally. Some of it is historical, men do business the way they’ve always done business and if you have a culture created by men it will inevitably suit men more than women. I don’t think anybody thinks: `How can we cut out women?’ but nobody thinks: `How can we cut them in?’ ”
She says the country cannot afford to be short-sighted. "Australia is facing a talent shortage and over time that will lead to a leadership shortage,” Feenstra says.

"There’s going to be less competition for leadership roles, which can’t be good because it means less able people make it to senior roles, which inevitably leads to poor decision-making and reduced outcomes.”

Diversity brings its own rewards. "If you want world-class leaders then you need to expose people to different perspectives from the beginning of their leadership journey. If you’re always exposed to the same way of thinking from the same sorts of people, then you won’t have a broad perspective. After all, we are all just products of our upbringing and experience.”

While heritage and history play their part, McKern counsels taking a long-term view. "Leadership is a difficult profession and a long-term role. It’s partly art and partly science but it’s critical for our society that we have good leaders in business, politics and every other domain. We should look at what the leader achieves over the long-term and the kind of organisation left behind when he or she goes.”

Article from The Australian, September 11, 2010.


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