Focus on Leadership
By Kim McKinnon, PhD

Author's note: This is the first in a six-part series focusing on some of the latest things we know about effective leadership - recent research, best practices and a specific approach leaders can use to improve their own effectiveness.

A trip to the library or the local bookstore quickly confirms that "leadership" continues to be a very popular topic. Row after row of books - old and new - remind us that leadership must be important because authors have been writing about it - not just for decades - but for centuries! Management guru Tom Peters has written about the value of leadership by suggesting that it is becoming "the most important element in organizations - the attribute which is greatest in demand yet shortest in supply."

Part of the challenge for those wanting to improve their leadership skill isn't that there is a lack of information about what to do - in fact, the opposite is true. We are virtually overwhelmed with books, DVDs, surveys and marketing emails with claims that someone has finally discovered the easy-to-implement secret to becoming a great leader. However, the truth is, like most worthwhile things, becoming a really good leader really does take time and effort. Fortunately, it is also true that there does seem to be growing agreement about what constitutes good, and even great, leadership.

Noted authors like John Kotter (Harvard), Dave Ulrich (University of Michigan), Stephen R. Covey (Seven Habits author), Ken Blanchard (One-Minute Manager and Situational Leadership) have all in recent times begun to describe similar attributes when they write about effective leadership. Although these individuals use different descriptors, the essence of what they describe is surprisingly consistent.

"The Fundamental Five" - An Overview of Coming Attractions

The goal of this series on leadership is to present five of these essential leadership roles - what we'll call "the Fundamental Five" - and to suggest ways for leaders to use this framework to improve their effectiveness. The challenge to is not simply to read or to remember or even to understand these best practices - but rather to actually use them in changing the way you lead.

"The Fundamental Five" are as follows:
  • Guardian - establishing TRUST
  • Navigator - clarifying PURPOSE
  • Coach - building engaged PEOPLE
  • Architect - strengthening TEAMWORK
  • Revolutionary - leading CHANGE
The claim made here is that becoming an effective leader is a direct result of becoming effective at these five roles. Each one of these five will be featured in the next five installments in this "Focus on Leadership" series - beginning with the "Guardian" role next time. Included will be background information, some "role model" examples as well as the sharing of specific practices used by leaders who are especially effective in each of the five areas.

Some Background - Four Things "We Know"

Before launching into our almost year-long journey exploring the five elements of good leadership, here is a short reminder of four other important things we know about leadership - kind of a review.

#1 Thing We Know: Leadership is Really Important

Consider the following information from a recent Conference Board study:
  • 82% of organizations report having a "difficult time finding qualified leaders"
  • 70% report that leadership is the "most important people issue" they face
  • 8% report that they have "excellent leadership"
These figures, taken from a broad array of enterprises, make it clear that leadership really matters in organizations - all organizations and all kinds of organizations. Regardless of whether it is the result of changing demographics or other less concrete reasons, we find ourselves seeking people who will take charge and who will take us someplace we need to go; we are looking for genuine leaders.

#2 Thing We Know: Leadership is Really Difficult

Additional research findings:
  • 40% of new leaders fail within the first 18 months on the job
  • 66% of leaders report "not liking their job as a leader"
  • <10% of current leaders have a plan to help them learn and grow
Perhaps the most troubling of these figures has to do with the lack of attention paid to improving leadership skills -- less than 10% of leaders with a development plan is a rather distressing situation. In all likelihood this means that most leaders are too focused on running the business to get better at running the business. Best practice organizations always have a structured, well-managed approach to leader development. Best practice leaders do too - even if they are forced to do it all themselves.

#3 Thing We Know: There may not be an "i" in team - but there is in leadership

The "i" which is essential to good leadership stands for "INFLUENCE." In fact, the very definition of a leader is "a person who influences others to get things done." Further, each one of the "fundamental five" is a different way for the leader to influence others. In later installments of this series, we will examine a variety of approaches leaders use to influence others. Whether it be "asking and inviting" at one end of the influencing continuum to "demanding and manipulating" at the other, some approaches are very effective and others are not. Learning how to assess needs and use an appropriate influencing strategy is something skilled leaders do well - and they do it a lot.

#4 Thing We Know: All really good leaders have two things in common

The short version of what good leaders seem to know and do is:
  1. Really Good Leaders WANT to be Leaders (not everyone with the leader title really does) and
  2. Really Good Leaders WORK at being Leaders (see #2 above)
Other than these two fundamental characteristics (i.e., strong desire to do a good job), we find that leaders can use a wide variety of styles, can possess unique personalities or even have unusual communication preferences - and they can still be very effective. Part of what makes leadership so interesting is that there is not "one best way." There are, however, specific behaviors and practices which can and do make a difference - in our case, "the fundamental five."

In the next part of this "Focus on Leadership" series, we will look at the foundation role - that of the "Guardian." Although a person may be very capable and possess a variety of impressive skills, without first "establishing trust" (the basic work of the Guardian), he or she will not be successful as a leader.

Kim McKinnon, PhD is a leadership development consultant and executive coach in the Phoenix area. In addition to his consulting work, Kim is also on the faculty at Arizona State University and the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Kim can be reached at: McKinnonConsulting@Cox.Net or through his website: McKinnonConsulting.Net.
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