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Effective leadership in uncertain times

Source: PSE Aug/Sept 2017

Dr David Beech, lecturer in people management at Salford Business School, argues that continuous renewal and progress is fundamental to effective leadership in uncertain times.

We know a lot about what leadership is, what leaders do and how they do it. Yet embedding continuous improvement, innovation and change in the day-to-day practices of getting things done through people continues to be elusive. An even deeper challenge is working out how to prevent leaders in the “benign dictatorship of the firm” from doing too much harm, e.g. their escalating contributions both to over-exploitation of Earth’s dangerously limited resources for seven billion individuals and to increasing inequality around the world.

The deeper challenge is an ethical one. We must be clear about what leadership is for in terms of social group outcomes. Leadership matters because the quality of each unique individual life is a function of the quality of life for the other unique individuals in their social networks, and such networks have increasingly fluid boundaries, often crossing continents. Such leadership is responsive to the human condition and contributes both to survival and to flourishing.

Leadership is the exercise of reciprocal influence and decision-making for a common purpose. These processes motivate people to engage in action for a common purpose for mutual benefits in evolving circumstances. Leadership is about people in leadership positions, in specific places, enacting processes to produce value-adding outcomes.

Leaders set goals to energise direction by establishing reasons for action (motivation) and ensuring everyone understands the situation and what is expected of them (sense-making). They also enable positive organisational action by allowing people to work together to the same end (task, relationship, change and political collaboration skills) and by involving people in the decisions which affect them. Responsive leaders have the competence and credibility to enable decisions to emerge through trial and error, action and discovery. This requires high levels of trust among employees and such trust is catalysed by effective task, relationship and change skills, including profound respect for people. Crucially, responsive leaders establish conditions which offer meaningful opportunities for each person to fulfil their fundamental needs to deploy and develop their competence with boundaried autonomy and mutual support and consideration in ways that contribute to a common purpose.

Beyond individual-level set goals, leaders deploy group- and social identity-level leadership practices that ensure people stay together (group identity and enterprise culture). They promote group membership, attachment and cohesion and they promote an enterprise culture with common beliefs, aims and values. Above all leaders and group members get the job done, and they engage in continuous reflection on what is going well and what could be done better. Five to 15 minutes once a week with meaningful dialogue with small groups of staff on effectiveness and renewal progressively embeds change and renewal DNA across the enterprise.

Setting goals, working together, staying together and keeping going are fundamental evidence-based domains of leadership practice: the how of leadership. These practices deliver the core functions of leadership: establishing and enabling direction, engagement, alignment and renewal.

Direction is the identity, vision and values contribution of leadership. Engagement energises action, and alignment ensures interests are aligned and collective action for a common purpose is co-ordinated and governed. Renewal is the consistently neglected function of leadership. Even the Center for Creative Leadership does not include separate attention to continuous innovation and renewal in its influential direction, alignment and commitment model of the core functions of leadership. Continuous innovation and renewal is neglected by political economists too!

Broadly, political economists, particularly in continental Europe, have accepted requirements to achieve a triple bottom line of quality of life for people and competitive productivity, both for private sector profit and for efficient use of scarce resources in the public and third sectors. Moreover, the third, planet criterion – sustainable engagement with Earth’s ecosystems – recognises the realistic prospect of ecocide during the 21st century and the compelling necessity to address sustainability adequately. Yet, once again, continuous innovation and commitment to renewal and progress is missing.

Responsive leadership achieves an evolving balance across ethical requirements to respect people, profit, planet and progress. Narrow, thoughtless and short-sighted prioritisation of profit threatens quality of life for all. Responsive leaders have a duty to deliver a better balance across a tetra bottom line which ensures ethics, creativity, evidence and determination combine to produce the ‘necessaries and conveniences of life’ that enable survival and promote flourishing.

Commitment to continuous renewal and progress is fundamental to effective leadership in uncertain times.


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