Jan 1st feels like a distant memory now, doesn’t it? But with the second quarter of the year soon to emerge on the horizon, now’s a good time to quickly check in, and perhaps reconnect with those new year targets we set ourselves.
A new year often kicks off a certain level of introspection. We assess where we are and often make resolutions to try and help us move towards identified goals – lose a few pounds, do some exercise, cut down on the empty calories. Businesses and leaders often take the same opportunity to reassess and set new goals. But often these are about what we aim to do as a leader. When perhaps the real question should have really been “who do I want to be as a leader?”.
As McKinsey highlights, the mindset of the leader is one of the biggest barriers to, or enablers of, the agile transformations that organisations need to make to thrive in today’s economy. To master their mindset leaders must get present to the type of leader they are being. And unlike a new year’s fitness kick, it is not a one-off examination quickly forgotten.
To remain effective, and to successfully lead transformations, leaders must get in the habit of holding up a mirror to themselves. McKinsey paraphrases the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset as it advises “tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are as a leader.” The things you focus on consciously and unconsciously reveal who you are being as a leader. They are important to you, but do they reflect the needs of the team or the organisation? Often the winning moves that got you where you are today (for example, a laser-focus on landing big deals) are preventing you from being present to the other things the team needs. Whilst you are leading the sales effort, concerns over resourcing, quality or team morale threaten to cause breakdowns elsewhere. Leaders must continuously question where they put their attention and act to become present to all the voices, ideas, challenges and opportunities that exist in their teams.
In traditional, hierarchical, stable businesses it was possible to lead by being one type of leader. Objectives were set, plans were made, and leadership meant keeping everyone aligned and focused on delivery. In today’s agile organisations leadership must exist in a constant state of flux. To be successful you must constantly tune in to your team members, as well as being fully present to the marketplace, customers, collaborators and myriad other sources of intelligence. Who you need to be as a leader will change every day – if not minute to minute – and deep awareness of your own context is essential to becoming effective. Putting aside your own winning moves in order to truly perceive and be present to the real demands of the team is hard and takes practice.
Leaders must develop fitness and resilience to cope with this constant adaptation. Maintaining a positive, creative mindset as well as the commitment to bold declarations that create potential futures for your organisation can be exhausting. Just as in physical conditioning, coaches can play a valuable role in building this leadership fitness; they hold up the mirror and force you to question your motives, your winning moves and where your attention really is. ‘Checking-in’ with a coach is an opportunity to check in with yourself and build that fitness.
The other key indicator of success in being the right leader is to look around you. You will know how well you are doing if you know how well those around you are doing. This is a two-step ratification. Are you really present for them; tuned into who they are being so that you really do know how they are doing? And does the feedback you get suggest that you are paying attention to the right things? There should be no surprises, but that does not mean there won’t be difficult conversations and pointed feedback to take on board.
Aspiring leaders, moving into these positions for the first time, need to be aware of the emotional, physical and mental fitness that is needed. The approaches, successes and ways of being that got them this far are unlikely to be suited to the challenge of leadership. The mastery of narrow niches that got you this far will not be enough. Being a leader today requires system thinking that appreciates the whole as well as giving attention to all the parts. The self-awareness and constant scrutiny of the way you are thinking as well as what you are thinking must become an ingrained habit if you are not only to create the right mindset for yourself but shape the culture of your organisation.
Even those who have been in leadership positions before may find that the broad, rapidly evolving demands of agile leadership a challenge. Business agility demands that leaders get present to what the organisation needs at any moment. Organic, evolutionary, collaborative businesses are complex networks that demand constant attention. Simply following the same routine and paying attention to the things that made you successful in the past will not deliver the breakthrough results you want. Just as athletes constantly train to improve and take on new competitors, so today’s agile leaders need to invest in maintaining fit mindsets.
Constant self-awareness, coolly examining yourself warts and all in the mirror can be a painful task and it takes courage. But it is a fundamental requirement for leaders of 21st century agile organisations. It is part of the shift from the controlled, predictable, incremental growth of traditional business to the breakthrough, transformational possibilities of the agile world. With it comes the chance to collaborate, partner, innovate and co-create in new and exciting ways, and lead through shared commitment to potential future. It will be hard work, and not everyone is up for it, but those that do stick with the regime will feel the satisfaction and glow of being at their best.
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