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Leadership Development 07 October 2011

Rock the boat without getting thrown off!

Great leaders make things happen. They motivate, inspire, innovate and bring out the best in the people around them

How to navigate your organisation through treacherous waters without causing a mutiny.

Leaders make things happen. They challenge the status quo, they push the envelope, even in difficult times they find ways to accomplish things others might think impossible. And the very best leaders do all of this and still bring people with them. In fact they motivate, inspire and build strong connections with the team around them. In other words, they rock the boat but they don't get thrown off.

When I ask participants in the leadership development workshops that I conduct to identify a great leader in their life and what that person did to create that impact, the responses I get generally fall into three categories:

  • Attitude
  • Knowledge
  • Skills

Headwinds and the impact on your leadership style

Of those three, most responses are related to attitude such as: "she was patient, really listened”, “he was open to my ideas”, and “he treated me with respect”.  Rarely does anyone mention that someone was technically brilliant or incredibly intelligent (which I’m sure is often true). What is more impactful and insightful it seems is the emotional impact that a leader has on the people around him/her.

This means not only what we do is important, but how we do it.  It takes plenty of hard work, intellect and technical knowledge in business to do what we each have been trained to do. And it really takes plenty of emotional intelligence (EI) to get the "how" part right too.

"Leadership failures are often related to the lack of critical emotional competencies and a wide range of EI competencies distinguished top performers from average ones." - Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence

And that is what great leaders do: they find ways to blend the technical and human dimensions of their job. They have the IQ and they have the EI. They have, as Jim Collins says in his business masterpiece, "Good to Great", the combination of professional will and humility - a key factor in "level five", or leadership excellence. They are able to integrate seemingly opposite concepts into highly effective leader behaviours. So, one of the keys to rocking the boat and not getting thrown off is to pay attention to the importance of emotional intelligence and the role it plays in leadership success.

Batten down the hatches

Let's look more closely at self-awareness and the role that it plays in being successful in today's business environment. The more we pay attention to our inner world the more we will notice our thought processes, our habits and our tendencies. For example, I am aware that one of my weaknesses is making decisions too quickly. I have learned that I can do various things to address this: I can make sure I discuss my proposed decision with someone who is more skilled at data analysis, or I can remind myself to consciously slow down and more carefully evaluate the data and the facts first.  Before I understood this, I was certainly guilty of making some poor decisions.

When we are more self-aware we can make better choices about how to behave. And better choices are the variables that can help us not only stay at the helm of the boat, but inspire loyalty, trust and results from our crew. Why? Because our behavior is a function of two components: our preferences and the choices we make.

Behavior = Preferences + Choices

Another way to understand the impact self-awareness has on our behaviour is shown in the example below:

Simply put, our being influences what we do, and what we do creates what we have. Our values, attitudes, beliefs and preferences drive our behavior. What is visible to those around us are the results we produce because of our behaviour. What is not visible under the waterline, but influences our behaviour is our being, our inner world.  And that is the key.

Leverage is below the waterline

Leadership begins below the waterline, at the being level. When we understand "what's below the waterline" we open up the door to increased self-awareness, and we generate the possibility of making better choices.  Once we have achieved this deeper level of self-understanding we can face the challenge of leading others. It’s a powerful way for leaders to ensure their boat-rocking activities are seen as ‘disruptive’ in the positive sense, activities that may disturb the status quo but ultimately lead to breakthroughs within organisations.

A useful way to ensure that we get the right balance of rocking the boat and not alienating people to the extent that there’s a mutiny is by using the Insights colour energies as a framework to increase self-awareness.

The Insights four colour energies can help people understand their preferred way of communicating and being communicated to either one to one or within teams. Once you know your preferred colour energy you can build on your interpersonal and communication skills to be the best leader you can.

  • Fiery Red energy is associated with persistence, drive and tough-mindedness. Although these traits can be extremely useful in rocking the boat, a leader with dominant Fiery Red energy might have a tendency to push through changes without consulting critical stakeholders. By taking time to understand the potentially harmful aspects of their preferences, the same leader can make a conscious effort to use their Fiery Red energy with grace – taking time to understand issues and concerns and modifying their approach so that people are ready for any disruption that might take place.
  • Sunshine Yellow energy is associated with passion and enthusiasm. A leader with dominant Sunshine Yellow energy can assume that everyone shares their appetite for a new initiative and, in their excitement they may neglect to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. With greater self-awareness this leader will acknowledge that they need to use their Sunshine Yellow energy with focus – creating a detailed plan so that their people have all of the information they need to be successful.
  • Earth Green energy is associated with harmony and democracy, so it may be less likely that leaders with dominant Earth Green energy will be comfortable in rocking the boat. However, they will quickly recognise when the status quo is having an adverse impact on the culture and they will typically have a strong motivation to make things better. With increased understanding of their preferences, these leaders can use their Earth Green energy with power – having the courage to be bold and take decisive action even though it may cause short-term discomfort.
  • Cool Blue energy is associated with objectivity, precision and logical analysis. A leader with dominant Cool Blue energy will not readily break the rules unless they are absolutely certain that it makes sense to do so. They will make a detailed and accurate assessment of a situation and analyse the pros and cons of making change. With greater self-understanding this leader will use their naturally cautious Cool Blue energy with passion – creating a powerful vision and being prepared to win the hearts as well as the minds of their people.

So, self-awareness and an understanding of our preferences that are hidden below the waterline, can help us develop a mature and balanced leadership style. We can be bold, innovative and challenge convention, but still bring our people with us. We can rock the boat just enough to make waves, but not so much that anyone (including the leader) gets thrown overboard.

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