Effective leadership is the result of a conscious, disciplined, and sustained effort to anticipate change, evaluate challenges and impediments, set a course of action, and stick to it.
All that may sound fairly straightforward — and yet in my experience consulting with organizations, it’s actually an ongoing challenge for many leaders. The reasons for this can vary depending on the industry, the size of the organization, and other factors.
One of the most fundamental challenges with leadership is that there is no single, one-size-fits-all definition of what constitutes effective leadership. This is true across industries, and it can also be the case even within a single organization.
What’s the most common impediment I’ve seen to leaders’ success? Far and away, it’s when leaders are overtaken by the day-to-day chaos that occurs in every organization. All too often, leaders start out their day with a clear idea of what they need to accomplish, only to be sidetracked and even overwhelmed by crises (large or small) that demand their attention. Most leaders probably want to be proactive and even visionary, but all too often they end up being reactive, allowing events and challenges to define their impact.
What is more, leaders may face challenges and impediments from a wide range of directions. Broadly, there are factors such as pressure from competitors and regulators, as well as ever-changing corporate intrusions. Other issues to address include the behaviors of their front line leaders.
Where to start?
So, if you’re concerned about effective leadership — whether for yourself or the people who report to you — where do you start? Here are four keys to consider.
1. Start by developing your leader standard work. Many leaders may begin their day with a particular list of goals, but before long they’re focusing on the crisis de jour or putting out one fire after another. To counter this, we encourage leaders to start small — say, by dedicating 20 minutes to focus only on major strategic decisions and issues, then eventually expanding that commitment to 40 minutes, an hour, and so on. Of course, there will always be crises that demand attention. But if you build into your schedule dedicated blocks of time for longer-term strategy and for dealing with crises (and then stick to your plan), there will most certainly be a gain in leadership effectiveness.
2. More broadly speaking, spend some time thinking about the structure that defines your role as a leader — not just the org structure and who reports to you about what, but also more tactical components, such as structures for communication (shift change, functional tier boards, daily direction setting, etc.), inputs and outputs (metrics and actions), and so on. Are the structures clear, well understood, and supportive of your effectiveness as a leader?
3. Next, consider the patterns and routines that govern how you lead. In other words, how do you as a leader interact with the structures just mentioned? This is where establishing some behavioral norms — both for you and those who report to you — can make a major difference in not only controlling the chaos but moving forward on more strategic levels as well.
4. The last step is measurement. How do you know whether you — and the leaders who report to you — are being effective? This means identifying the right metrics to track, consistently assessing performance against those metrics, and making adjustments accordingly (you can’t manage what you’re not measuring). And that’s where the return on leadership really kicks in.
Keep your eye on the prize
People focus on what the leader focuses on. By taking a systematic approach to reviewing these four areas, you can begin to establish a new and more effective approach to leadership. It won’t happen overnight — you know the old saying about turning a battleship — but by addressing the impediments and understanding what structures and systems you have in place, you can begin to make incremental changes that will add up to long-term improvements in the impact of your leadership.