The Quest for Leadership Purpose

?Great leadership has the potential to excite people to extraordinary levels of achievement. But it is not only about performance; it is also about meaning.? ~ Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones, Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? (Harvard Business Review Press, 2006)
Great leaders have a profound impact in their communities, families and key societal realms (i.e., sports, politics). Nowhere is good leadership more important than at work, where we devote considerable time and energy.
If you want to drive a high-performance organization, you must find ways to make employee performance meaningful. Sadly, many executive teams focus on numbers instead of words when trying to motivate people to achieve more. Carrots and sticks may work in some situations, but leaders must engage hearts and minds to truly excite people to give their all.
There is a deepening disenchantment with traditional-style management. We are increasingly suspicious of the skilled and charismatic boss who echoes corporate mission statements and jargon. The search for authenticity in those who lead us has never been more pressing.
While concepts such as quiet leadership and servant leaders are popular in business bestsellers, corporations are slow to change selection criteria. Leadership continues to be about results. Organizations are not immune to the lure of the heroic CEO.
While great results aren?t achieved by inspirational leadership alone, they may not be possible without it. Employees choose to come to work and give their best?or not. Leaders who excel at capturing hearts, minds and souls provide purpose, meaning and motivation.
Know Your Leadership Purpose
How can we expect our leaders to provide a sense of meaning and purpose when they themselves struggle with self-knowledge, purpose and identity?
?We?ve found that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose,? confirm Nick Craig and Scott A. Snook in ?From Purpose to Impact,? published in the May 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. ?Even fewer can distill their purpose into a concrete statement.?
When interviewed at work about what gives their lives meaning, executives parrot the latest corporate propaganda:

  • ? ?Increasing shareholder value?
  • ? ?Delighting customers?
  • ? ?Becoming the best in product innovation?
  • ? ?Delivering worldwide more ?X? than our competitors?

When asked the same questions at home, executives admit to profound symptoms of meaninglessness, work-related stress and dysfunctional family lives. They typically fall back on generic and nebulous catchphrases when asked to describe their purpose:

  • ? ?Help others excel?
  • ? ?Ensure success?
  • ? ?Empower my people?

Just as problematic, hardly any have clear plans for translating purpose into action.
Defining ?Purpose?
Most of us go to our graves with our music still inside us, unplayed. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes
?Your leadership purpose is who you are and what makes you distinctive,? note Craig and Snook. ?Whether you?re an entrepreneur at a start-up or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, your purpose is your brand, what you?re driven to achieve, the magic that makes you tick.?
It?s not what you do, but how you do your job and why?the strengths and passions you bring to the table, no matter where you?re seated. While you may express your purpose in different ways and contexts, it?s what everyone close to you recognizes as uniquely you.
At its core, leadership purpose springs from your identity: the essence of who you are. Purpose is not a list of the education, experience and skills you?ve gathered in life. It?s definitely not some jargon-filled slogan.
Purpose should be specific and personal, resonating with you, and you alone. It doesn?t have to be aspirational, cause-based or who you think you should be. It?s who you can?t help being.
Find Your Purpose
Finding your leadership purpose is not easy. If it were, we?d all know exactly why we?re here and be living it every minute of every day.
You can begin to find your purpose by:

  1. 1. Developing Your Stories. Mine your life story for common threads and major themes. Your goal is to identify your core strengths, values and passions?the pursuits that energize you and bring you joy. The following prompts may prove helpful:
  • ? What did you especially love to do when you were a child, before the world told you what you should or shouldn?t like or do? Describe how a key moment made you feel.
  • ? Identify two of your most challenging life experiences. How have they shaped you?
  • ? What do you enjoy doing now that brings out the best in you?
  1. 2. Working with a Coach or Mentor. It?s almost impossible to identify your leadership purpose alone. You need help from people who act as mirrors. Retain the services of an experienced executive coach, or find a qualified mentor. You can also seek feedback from a small group of trustworthy peers.
  2. 3. Writing a statement of purpose. After completing the first two steps, take a shot at crafting a clear, concise and declarative statement of purpose: ?My leadership purpose is _______.? The words in your statement must be your own. Don?t pull buzzwords or clich?s from a business book or article. Your statement must capture your essence and call you to action.

As you review your stories, you?ll likely find a unifying thread. Pull it to uncover your purpose, and then begin to share it with others. Your payoff will be an increased comfort level as you articulate your purpose. You?ll build trust by creating the authenticity that followers seek in their leaders.
The Quest for Authenticity
The demand for authentic leadership has never been more evident. As hierarchies dissolve, only truly authentic leaders can fill the void. Power, trust and followership depend on leaders who know their purpose, express it in words and deeds, and help others find and implement their own raison d??tre.
We are beginning to realize that we need personal meaning and purpose to guide us. No corporation is going to provide it for us. We must also communicate our purpose more openly if anyone is going to follow us.
Without a clearly articulated purpose, meaning is elusive. People may know what?s expected of them, but they may not recognize why they should care. Leaders who know themselves and what truly matters express authenticity and inspire others to follow suit. Authentic leadership has become the most prized organizational and individual asset.
While these truths may seem evident, little training and development are devoted to helping leaders discover their sense of purpose. Instead, leadership training encourages conformists or role players with an impoverished sense of what really matters.
If leaders fail to express what they stand for, followers aren?t going to join them. Leadership can never be taught as something we do to people, but rather the way we interact with people. Leadership must always be viewed as a relationship between leader and follower.
As Goffee and Jones state: ?Effective leaders have an overarching sense of purpose together with sufficient self-knowledge of their potential leadership assets. They don?t know it all, but they know enough.?
Unique Leadership Qualities
While theories abound about good leaders? characteristics and traits, our search for the right qualities may be all wrong. There may not be any universal leadership characteristics. What works for one person may not work for another.
Instead, we need to pinpoint each aspiring leader?s distinctive assets and effectively mobilize them. What?s special about each leader? How can individual strengths be deployed as powerful leadership skills?
Three Leadership Axioms
Goffee identifies three fundamental axioms about leadership:

  1. 1. Situational. What?s required of leaders will always be influenced by the situation. An effective leader observes and understands existing situations, a skill called situation sensing. Great leaders excel at this. They?re in tune with what?s going on beneath the surface, adapting and selecting their skills to form the most effective response. At times, they may choose to conform; in other situations, they?re unafraid to risk being different. They deploy their best personal assets according to context. Not only do they reframe situations; they influence and reshape them to benefit the organization and the people they lead.
  2. 2. Nonhierarchical. Authority alone is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for exercising leadership and driving performance. Effective leaders exist at all levels, and successful organizations seek to build leadership capability widely.
  3. 3. Relational. Leadership is always a social construct created by relationships. You cannot lead without followers. Followers, in turn, want their leaders to express feelings of excitement, meaning and personal significance; they want to be part of something bigger. That?s why we seek authenticity from our leaders. We need to be able to trust.

12 Vital Questions
Developing as a leader isn?t easy; there aren?t any secret recipes. In fact, all the leadership books, theories and volumes of material may confuse people who attempt to expand their leadership skills.
You?re better served by taking time to reflect on the following questions from Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?:

    1. 1. Which personal differences form the basis of your leadership capability?
    2. 2. Which personal values and vision do you hold for those you aspire to lead?
    3. 3. Which personal weaknesses do you reveal to those you lead?
    4. 4. In which ways do you develop authentic relationships with those you lead?
    5. 5. How well are you able to read different contexts?
    6. 6. When influencing others, do you conform enough?
    7. 7. When influencing others, do you differentiate yourself enough?
    8. 8. Do you know when to hold back and when to connect with others on common ground?
    9. 9. How well do you manage social distance?
    10. 10. How well do you express tough empathy, offering people what they need rather than what they want?
    11. 11. How well do you communicate your personal differences, your weaknesses, your values and vision?
    12. 12. Do you consistently express authenticity across different roles, situations and audiences?

Teamwork: Evaluate Your Workspaces

Part of the problem with getting effective work done through teams, as I see it, stems from actual working conditions in offices.
More than 70 percent of today’s employees work in open office spaces. The amount of space per employee shrank from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.
There are ways to create office settings that are more conducive to getting work done. People should be free to circulate and interact, yet also free to disappear into their own private workspaces.
Some companies are starting to understand the value of silence and solitude by creating open plans that offer a mix of solo workspaces, quiet zones and casual meeting areas. Flextime and work-from-home schedules offer other ways to encourage focus and concentration.
Open office spaces encourage interaction, for sure. If you’re an extrovert, that’s probably helpful. But not if you’re an introvert. In the work I do in corporate coaching, I hear complaints about this.
Excessive stimulation seems to impede learning, as do interruptions. The simple act of being interrupted is one of the greatest barriers to productivity.
Better Ways to Work in Teams
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~ Anthropologist Margaret Mead
Teams are not inherently bad, but they can be refined and adjusted to provide better results. The way forward is not to stop collaborating, but to do it better.
o To guard against groupthink, use checklists or ask certain team members to play devil’s advocates.
o If you need to stimulate creativity, ask people to come up with ideas alone before sharing them with the team.
o If you seek the wisdom of the crowd, gather it electronically or in writing first.
o Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust, but group dynamics contain unavoidable impediments to creative thinking. Don’t mistake assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas.
What are your thoughts about ways to work in teams and still get a lot of creative work done?

Teamwork: Introverts vs. Extroverts

I’ve been writing about teams and brainstorming, and reviewing all the research that shows that individual work is actually more creative than group brainstorming.
The one exception to effective brainstorming is when it is done online. When properly managed, groups that brainstorm online perform better than individuals – and the larger the group, the better it performs. The same holds true for academic research: Professors who collaborate electronically tend to produce more influential research.
What we fail to realize is that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude unto itself. Nevertheless, brainstorming continues to be a popular method within organizations and with teams.
Participants in brainstorming sessions usually believe their group performed much better than it actually did. Brainstorming makes people feel attached, but social glue is far different from genuine creativity.
Introverts vs. Extroverts
In the work I do leadership coaching, I see big differences in work styles depending on whether one is an introvert or an extrovert. One’s attraction to working in social groups may be culturally influenced.
In the U.S., for example, companies tend to idealize charismatic extroverts. (Think celebrities and media-savvy CEOs.) Because extroverts usually talk the most (and often the loudest), their ideas are heard and often implemented.
Psychologists agree that introverts and extroverts work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast and sometimes rash decisions. They are comfortable with multitasking and risk-taking.
Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They prefer to focus on one task at a time, and they dislike interruptions and noisy environments that interfere with concentration.
Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening and are comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.
Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy some parties and business meetings, but after a while they wish they were at home with a good book. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak and often express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict.
To learn more about the important differences in introverts and extroverts working in teams, I recommend Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.
Leaders must understand each team member’s strengths and temperament. The most effective teams are composed of a healthy mix of introverts and extroverts.

The New Groupthink

In “The Rise of the New Groupthink” (The New York Times, Jan.13, 2012), corporate attorney and author Susan Cain explains:
Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
There’s a problem with the view that all work should be conducted by teams. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. As Cain writes:
Anyone who has ever needed noise-canceling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I’m talking about.
It’s one thing when each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from coworkers’ conversations or gazes.
False Benefits of Brainstorming
Brainstorming is a creative technique through which group members form solutions to specific problems by spontaneously shouting out ideas, without censoring themselves or criticizing others. The term was popularized by marketing expert Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book Applied Imagination.
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and performance worsens as group size increases. Groups of nine generate fewer and poorer ideas compared to groups of six, which function worse than groups of four.
The “evidence from science suggests that business-people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.”
Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming:
1. Social loafing. Some individuals sit back and let others do all the work.
2. Production blocking. Only one person can talk or produce an idea at a time, so the others are forced to sit passively.
3. Evaluation apprehension. Even when group members agree to welcome all ideas, people fear they’ll look stupid in front of their peers.
What do you see happening in the teams you participate in?

The Hidden Problems with Teams

One of the complaints I hear frequently from the people I work with as an executive coach is the lack of time to get work done because of meetings. Meetings are time consuming, and all teams require them.
There are other insidious disadvantages to teamwork, notes Professor Heidi K. Gardner in her April 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “Coming Through When It Matters Most”.
“Just when teams most need to draw on the full range of their members’ knowledge to produce the high-quality, uniquely suitable outcomes they started out to deliver, they instead begin to revert to the tried and true,” she writes.
Under pressure, teams gravitate toward safe ground. While most start out highly engaged, inviting input from everyone, members become risk-averse as they push toward project completion. They maneuver toward consensus in a way that blocks paths to critical information.
This process occurs through subtle language cues that warn team members to avoid delays. Team leaders use their positional power to foster harmony and swift decision-making. Although discussions still appear to be open, in reality there’s an effort to move the project along by getting everyone to agree on the optimal course.
If this sounds like “groupthink”, it is. But it’s more nuanced and subtle – hence, more dangerous.
Groupthink, originally researched by Yale University psychologist Irving Janis, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within groups. It’s a mode of thinking that occurs when a decision-making group’s desire for harmony overrides its realistic appraisal of alternatives.
Group members try to minimize conflict and reach a consensus, without critically evaluating additional ideas or viewpoints. Factors like group cohesiveness and situational context help determine whether groupthink will contaminate the decision-making process.
The negative cost of groupthink is loss of individual creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Organizationally, these consequences lead to costly errors in product launches, service policies and competitive strategies.
What are your thoughts about this?

The Problem with Teams

Teamwork demands shared responsibility, but it also demands individual contributions. It fails if team members shelter behind the consensus. ~ Robert Heller, Founding Editor, Management Today
A recent survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe teams are the key to success. But the evidence doesn’t always support this assertion. Many teamwork-related problems remain hidden from view.
In the work I do corporate coaching, I often hear assumptions about team effectiveness. Every team thinks it does its best work when the stakes are highest. On the contrary, pressures to perform drive people toward safe solutions that are justifiable, rather than innovative.
To raise my own awareness and those of my clients, like those needing a hospital coach program, I’ve been doing some reading about teams. Corporations increasingly organize workforces into teams, a practice that gained popularity in the 1990s. By 2000, roughly half of all U.S. organizations used teams; today, virtually all do.
Some teams work together from remote locations, relying on technical communication aids, such as web conferencing and email. Others demand a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction, including team-building retreats, shared online calendars, meetings and physical workspaces that afford little privacy.
“Innovation – the heart of the knowledge economy – is fundamentally social,” writes prominent journalist Malcolm Gladwell.
Management expert Peter Drucker, who coined the term “knowledge worker”, points out that while people have always worked in tandem, “teams become the work unit rather than the individual himself” in knowledge work.
Working in teams has definite advantages:
o Improved information-sharing
o Better decisions, products and services
o Higher employee motivation and engagement
There are, however, several barriers to achieving great work from teams:
o Some individuals are faster (or better) on key tasks.
o Developing and maintaining teams can prove costly.
o Some individuals do less work, relying on others to complete assigned tasks.
Most corporate leaders nonetheless believe the benefits of teamwork far outweigh the costs. But do they? How much individual creative work isn’t being done because of the demands of group interaction and time-consuming meetings? Think about it. I’d love to hear your opinion on this.