Based on my review of current leadership research and best practices, combined with my own 23 years of consulting experience with senior leaders, I identified three critical challenges for today’s senior leaders. These include: (1) leader discomfort with “not knowing”; (2) limited upward communication and, (3) the lack of, or an ineffective, succession-planning process.
Discomfort with “Not Knowing”
Some leaders consistently refrain from risk-taking, even when it is well planned and thought through, often due to their personal discomfort and fear. Others take the opposite approach and neither hesitate to take risks nor request input from others on a systematic basis. In both cases, these leaders are often perceived as inauthentic and inaccessible because of their unwillingness to ask for help, to “not know”, to show transparency and to show interest in the ideas of others. This willingness to be wrong, once considered the death of leaders, paradoxically gains them great respect from their staff. The more comfortable leaders are with their skills, knowledge, experience and perhaps most important judgment, the more likely they are to demonstrate transparency and vulnerability. Ironically, in the tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the Emperor’s unwillingness to be wrong led to far more vulnerability on his part, i.e., his nakedness! The Emperor’s unwillingness to be wrong also impacted everyone; only a young child spoke the truth of the Emperor’s nakedness while everyone else silenced his or her perceptions. Similarly, unsure and insecure leadership behaviors often bring out those same behaviors in their staff. Strategies to build leader comfort with not having all the answers include: requesting feedback, developing transparency and getting coaching in emotional intelligence skills.
Limited Upward Communication
A second central challenge for leaders is their lack of pulse on what staff in their organization thinks and feels. Leaders who are not open to debate, feedback or different ways of thinking are likely to be seriously blindsided by critical information. The key to hearing from staff is creating and nurturing an organizational culture that values and reinforces different ways of thinking, grounded risk-taking and learning from others. Critical strategies leaders can employ to encourage upward communication include: active listening, showing curiosity, being transparent and authentic and, engaging staff in projects and discussions.
Given the current economic downturn, coupled with the beginning of the retirement of baby boomers, organizations without effective succession programs are in great jeopardy. Of those programs that do exist, many are deficient because of their lack of alignment with business strategy and organizational vision as well as their limited focus on replacing only senior leaders. Highly effective succession-planning programs must: (1) be aligned with business strategy; (2) address all managerial positions as well as all highly specialized/technical positions; (3) formally identify high potential candidates and offer them talent management. Frequent assessment of the organization’s strategy and vision too will help continually ensure the alignment of these programs with changing organizational needs and goals.
When leaders learn to accept their “not knowing” and more frequently engage with staff, they send the message that they too are human and have much to learn from others. That message alone, if matched by congruent leader behaviors, can positively affect staff motivation, commitment and even performance. Finally, an effective succession-planning program must be comprehensive and integrated in order to have real organization impact.