Developing Talents and Leaders

Developing Talents and Leaders

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1. What is leadership?

Today, it is common to think of leadership as essential to the proper functioning of an organisation and society. Although leadership is often easy to identify in practice, it is difficult to define precisely. David V. Day and John Antonakis (2012) pointed out that "given the complex nature of leadership, a specific definition of leadership does not exist and may never be found" while Fred Fiedler (1971) noted, "There are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are theories of leadership - and there are almost as many theories of leadership as psychologists are working in the field.”

It is widely accepted that leadership can be defined in the following terms:

(a) A process of influence and its results, which occur between a leader and his subordinates.

(b) The dispositional characteristics and behaviours of the leader (as a person), the perceptions and attributions of followers, and the context of how the influence process occurs.

This broad definition highlights the role of leaders in creating conditions that allow others to thrive and be more effective through a process of influence that empowers others.

This is why some say there is still a distinction between managers and leaders:

  • Leadership is seen as purposeful action that brings about change or transformation, based on values, ideals, vision, symbols and emotional exchange
  • While management is seen as more goal-oriented, resulting in stability based on rationality, bureaucratic means and compliance with contractual obligations.

Approaches to leadership

Many theories on leadership have been shared over the past decades:

  • The "Great Man Theories" seek to understand what makes an effective leader or what characteristics make a person a leader. These characteristics range from cognitive ability to character traits, and motives such as the need for power, charisma or a different leadership style.
  • Contingency theory attempts to explain what types of leaders are needed for organisational effectiveness in different contexts.
  • More recent approaches to understanding leadership (e.g., leader-member exchange, compassionate leader) seek to understand relational aspects, including the leader's ability to interact with others.

Leadership has always been more difficult in complicated times, but the stressors facing organisations around the world today require a renewed focus on what constitutes true leadership, the fundamental construct that underlies all positive forms of leadership and its development, called authentic leadership development.

What is authentic leadership and why is it important?

Authentic leaders are those who are "deeply aware of how they think and behave and are perceived by others to be aware of their own moral values/perspectives, knowledge and strengths, aware of the context in which they operate, and who are confident, hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and highly moral" (Avolio, Luthans & Walumbwa, 2004).

Avolio, Luthans, Seligman, and many others have recognised that a more authentic leadership development strategy is becoming relevant and urgent to achieve desirable outcomes. They suggest the need to focus on all positive forms of leadership and their development, which they call authentic leadership development. The central assumption is that, through increased self-awareness, self-regulation, and positive modelling, authentic leaders foster the development of authenticity in their subordinates. In turn, the authenticity of followers contributes to their well-being and the achievement of sustainable, true performance.

One of the main differences between authentic leadership development and the current fashionable leadership theories is that authentic leadership is the original concept. This means that it is the basis for what subsequently constitutes other forms of positive leadership, such as transformational, charismatic, servant, and spiritual leadership, of which vision is a central element.

How to develop authentic leadership?

  • Focusing on values and identity (i.e., who leaders are), which drive behaviours and skills (i.e., what leaders do).
  • Implement authentic leadership by being comfortable with who we are and how we tend to behave (i.e., ease of translating values and identity into action).
  • Connecting with others on an emotional level through narration: people are more influenced by emotions than by accurate/perfect information.

2. Moving forward to develop talent and leaders

2.1. Developing and retaining tomorrow's talent

Leadership is about guiding, empowering and developing people. But where should a leader focus their attention when they decide to develop the potential of others and help them excel at what they do?

We tend to refer to people who excel in their field as "natural talents". But experts like Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, Anders Ericson and many others would disagree with the statement that talent is innate rather than developed.

2.1.1 Talent and tenacity

"Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you put in the effort. Success is what happens when you use your acquired skills. Of course, the opportunities available to you - for example, having a great coach or teacher - also matter a great deal, perhaps more than anything else about the individual," says Angela Duckworth, author of the best-selling "The Art of Niaque." Success is determined by what she calls "drive," which she defines as the passion and perseverance to achieve long-term goals. And the equation for getting the drive is this:

Talent x effort = skill

Skill x effort = achievement

2.1.2 Developing talent and mindset

Recent studies show that a learning mindset, the belief that our skills can be improved through effort and perseverance, is a better predictor of success than IQ or other characteristics. This mindset determines whether people accept challenges and whether they are likely to give up. If you are a leader, it can be critical to understand these differences and help people use them in context.

2.1.3 Talent and organisational environment

People who excel and thrive at work need an organisational environment that meets their basic psychological needs and energises them. Carol Dutton of the University of Michigan believes that the energy and vitality of individuals and organisations depend on the quality of the connections between people within the organisation, and between members of the organisation and the outsiders with whom they deal. She demonstrated that high-quality connections are built on three main pillars: respect, trust and accountability. She emphasised that these types of connections contribute significantly to the well-being and work performance of individuals and enable individual and organisational excellence.

2.2. Preparing future leaders

Leadership is not about the leader's story, but about the story of others. A successful future leader understands how to influence people ethically, which means being positive in intent and outcome. To do this, the leader must be fully aware of what drives him or her, and what drives others to act.

2.2.1. Guiding and influencing

Many factors contribute to each of us being effective in influencing others and being influenced by others. Most are unique and reflect different styles, preferences, values, needs and experiences. Think of influence as a delicious pie, which starts with a good crust. That's the common thread in all good pies. The pie crust of influence has two key ingredients: trust and togetherness. The filling ingredients are individual and unique to each person. Thus, the pie crust is composed of confidence and warmth, and the filling is determined by our personal preferences. (see DISC tool sheet)

2.2.2. Building trust

"Trust is the foundation of empowering leadership [...]. I am willing to be led by you because I trust you. In turn, you are willing to trust me because you trust me [...]. People tend to trust you when they believe they are interacting with the real you (authenticity) when they believe in your judgment and competence (logic), and when they believe you care about them (empathy)," explain Frances Frei and Anne Morriss in their latest book "Unleashed.”

2.2.3. Motivating others

A large part of a leader's responsibility is to provide a framework, direction and regulation; yet many workplace studies show that the most important gauge for a healthy work environment is not a strong external framework, but the ability of individuals to foster internal motivation.

A well-established theory of motivation, called self-determination theory, or SDT, has shown that autonomous motivation predicts persistence and adherence and is advantageous for effective performance, particularly for complex or heuristic tasks that involve deep information processing. A considerable body of research has shown that interpersonal contexts that facilitate the satisfaction of basic psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relationship enhance internal motivation.

2.3. Supporting senior leaders

Leadership requires the exercise of influence. It also involves a degree of responsibility for the organisation, social evaluation (i.e., others are watching and judging), commitment to important goals or tasks, or being in uncontrollable situations.

Because people in leadership roles must influence and depend on others to do their jobs, and because they may feel responsible for the collective effort and desired progress of the organisation, they frequently, if not daily, find themselves in situations that cause stress.

This suggests that leaders are more likely to be effective and resistant to the effects of stress if they are physiologically and psychologically balanced and if they have the means to be emotionally agile and lead with compassion.

2.3.1. Emotional agility

Research has shown that the main obstacle to tapping into our inner strength is our thinking style, that is, the way we interpret events. For example, we can view stress as a stimulating situation that motivates and energises us, or we can view stress as a threatening situation that creates anxiety and fear because we doubt our resources and skills to deal with that specific situation. How a leader interprets the situation and understands his or her emotions has a significant impact on performance.

Emotions are signals, which provide information that helps us navigate through the complex situations of life. They help us regulate our body system by functioning as a kind of "internal radar" to give us signals about a situation. Susan David, a Harvard Medical School faculty psychologist, says that emotional agility means "being flexible with your thoughts and feelings so that you can respond optimally to everyday situations - the key to well-being and success. [... Emotional agility is not about controlling your thoughts or forcing yourself to think more positively. [...] it's about letting go, calming down and living with it with more intention [...] it's a process of being in the moment, changing or maintaining your behaviours so that you can live in a way that is consistent with your intentions and values.”

2.3.2. Guiding with compassion

Some of the latest research suggests that an effective but stressed leader loses some of his or her ability to adapt, learn and stay healthy. This means that the leader must improve his or her response to stress.

Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize argue that leading with compassion by "helping others in their intentional change process (i.e., fulfilling their dreams or aspirations or changing the way they think, feel, and act)" can have this stress-reducing effect on leaders. They define compassion as having three main components: (1) empathy or understanding of another's feelings; (2) caring for the other person (e.g., affiliative stimulation); and (3) willingness to act in response to the person's feelings. The experience of compassion elicits responses in the human body that reverse the effects of the stress response and can function as an antidote to stress. This effect should support leadership effectiveness, allowing the leader to maintain a healthier state and access more brain power.

2.4. Support and develop mentoring initiatives

Research on the development of effective leaders throughout their careers highlights mentors, coaches or those who helped them along the way.

Teaching is a very important form of mission that can be done formally or informally and occurs whenever someone shares information, advice, and guidance that helps others be more effective in their work and unleash their potential. Sometimes teaching means helping someone understand a situation from a different perspective. Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan distinguishes three forms of teaching that are particularly relevant in organisations: training, coaching or mentoring, and policy assistance. Boyatzis, Smith, and Blaize argue that leading with compassion by "helping others in their intentional change process (i.e., fulfilling their dreams or aspirations or changing the way they think, feel, and act)" can have this stress-reducing effect on leaders. They define compassion as having three main components: (1) empathy or understanding of another's feelings; (2) caring for the other person (e.g., affiliative stimulation); and (3) willingness to act in response to the person's feelings. The experience of compassion elicits responses in the human body that reverse the effects of the stress response and can function as an antidote to stress. This effect should promote leadership effectiveness, allowing the leader to maintain a healthier state and access more brain power.

When individuals begin working in a new organisation or take on a new role, training is especially important. It is an opportunity to learn, but also to become engaged and involved in the organisation. Coaching and mentoring provide support by using or sharing specific strategies to achieve career goals.

Mentoring programs, also seen as critical to an individual's career success, are often explicitly designed to help people succeed in terms of better job outcomes and satisfaction. They also create what Dutton calls "opportunities for accountability that build better connections between mentors and those they work with." Political assistance involves providing information about organisational politics, knowledge about patterns of action and resource allocation, influence tactics that work in a unit, or alerting a colleague or subordinate to political games. All of these types of teaching build bridges between the people who help them and the organisation that does more collaborative work.