The Practical Effects of Contingency
There is no universal guidance for how to be a good leader except that you must meet the leadership needs of the persons, presenting situation, and challenges of the moment. It is for those who lead to figure out the rest, day by day, moment by moment. Leaders must appraise and respond to this action imperative, often without having all the time and information they would like. Indeed, that is where the notion of contingency comes in. “Stuff” happens and leaders must act.
Let me distinguish my point here from two common elements in leadership training: First, I am not talking about "situational leadership" or some other model of leadership that provides a typology of needs and responses. Theory and models are useful, but they're not as immediately relevant to the scene of action I have in mind. Much of the time, leaders are required to act in the moment from intuitively guided judgment, more affected by their state of mind and facts on the ground than a model or theory.
Second, I am not suggesting that leaders act contrary to the goals, strategies, and operating plans they’ve formulated in management meetings. But, if the reality is that leaders must often act under time constraints that make intuitive judgment unavoidable, the task of internalizing and “metabolizing” these plans is even more crucial. It makes a difference whether such plans are in the desk drawer or active as purposive guidance in the background of our mind. In either case, however, leaders will act.
Leadership as Identity Work
Given these considerations, I believe we must recognize the vital importance of leader identity. After all, a leader’s mental state and personal presence are an expression of his/her identity. And the appraisal and response to presenting situations, the persons involved, and the business aims they share are mediated by how they are processed in the leader’s mind and discussed and acted upon through his or her overt actions and interactions with others.
Human beings are highly adaptive creatures, and emerging leaders are often rather driven, highly action oriented people. Thus, their ongoing adult identity development is frequently shaped by an unrelenting appetite for challenge and the adaptive development required to succeed and thrive in those initiatives. The steeper the challenge (complexity, scope, time pressures, etc.) of the task, the more learning and strain there will be.
When the duration of strain and struggle is extended, and the results of the leader’s efforts fall short, the leader may begin to question him/herself. Coping resources – cognitive, emotional, and social – can be exhausted, leaving the leader feeling depleted and at risk of failure. Unless appropriate coaching support for this leader has been provided, this escalating pattern of exhaustion and anxiety may also induce the leader to retreat in an attempt to conceal his or her failure and not be “found out.”
Implications for Leader Development
The live, everyday practice of leadership makes regular demands on leaders to make decisions and take effective action based on intuitive judgment. This judgement concerns prudential issues of consequence to financial performance and stakeholder interests, as well as cultural and organizational matters affecting human performance (execution and engagement), capacity building, and sustainability.
Ultimately, we must trust our leaders’ capacities to exercise this kind of judgment, and to quickly learn from mistakes along the way. To the extent they can do so, we are able to count on them to run the business without a great deal of supervision. It is this kind of leader development, reaching down into the lower and middle levels of management, that ensures an ample supply of senior leaders in the future, and the capacity to function faster and more effectively in a flatter, globally dispersed organization.
So, how should we approach this kind of development for emerging leaders (cultivating individual capacities for leadership) in order to ensure we are building our enterprise-wide leadership capacity?
1. A Scalable Approach to Assessment-Based Coaching. The development approach that is best suited to this situation and purpose begins with the use of multi-rater (360) feedback of a specific kind. We must assess personal qualities and relational tendencies that shape our identity and that are particularly relevant to leadership and adaptive adult development. Emerging leaders must have a grasp of who they are and how they exemplify these characteristics today, and how their work as leaders indicates a need to further cultivate and apply these kinds of behavior prospectively.
2. Highly Individualized Development and Group Learning. Assessment of individuals must be situated within the unique context of their lives, roles, and operating environments. This context is social and is defined by roles, goals, processes, and relationships. It is in and through this constellation of factors that leaders discover their challenges, resources, and opportunities to experiment with more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. The curriculum may not directly address key technical-functional skills and knowledge, but it does enable leaders to use such "hard" resources more effectively.
3. Sustained Practice and Growth. Intensive use of strategies #1 and #2 gets action-oriented emerging leaders off to a quick start (90-120 days). We do this by engaging them in action learning, applying their insights and developmental action strategies to real, high-value work. However, to prevent them from being totally consumed by a task focus and neglecting attention to enabling patterns of behavior (thinking, relating, doing), follow-up measures and feedback specific to the leader’s work and role are deployed. They are placed in the driver’s seat, integrating and validating their gains - it's quite reinforcing.
Holism is the Key
Openness to taking a fresh look at yourself in the context of a stretch assignment or new position, and sharing what you see with someone else requires humility and courage, patience and persistence. Your mind is the primary tool that you have as a leader, and it encompasses thought, feeling, and action tendencies. We all have acquired habits of mind that govern how we see things – self, others, relationships, and situations. These habits are engraved in well-worn neural pathways that have generally served us well up to now.
However, when we choose to take on the role of leadership, just as with taking on the role of parenting, we may find that change is needed. It requires active learning that will blaze new neural pathways and trigger additional synaptic connections. Some of the learning affects our rational-analytical left hemisphere, which thrives on logic and the stuff of semantic memory (facts, knowledge, ideas). Some of it affects the right-brain functions, which sharpen attentional focus and transmit intuitive data from subcortical regions upward to influence judgment, while also enhancing emotional self-management and our abilities to moderate reactive tendencies.
In closing, let's keep a few simple points in mind. First, all of who we are and what we become depends importantly on what we want in life and what we value. These considerations authored by us have a great deal of influence on the re-wiring of our brain. Second, as I like to remind leaders, positions with core leadership responsibilities are usually a choice, elective, even a privilege in most firms. Fortunately, so is your capacity to learn, grow, and develop. Finally, just as you did not become who you are on your own as a child, you will not do it as a leader either. Indeed, becoming a great leader involves learning this lesson and paying it forward.
You are invited to contact the author directly with questions or comments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 401.885.1631.