The effective leader starts by taking a look in the mirror

Mar 2, 2022

It usually takes something drastic for us humans to change our behaviour. That is true, but especially so when we’re just behaving the way we always have – for example the way we behave in the workplace, how we communicate and how we lead.

The advantage of habits is that they help us build routines that often save us time. However, we also risk hanging on to bad habits because we become blind to behaviour that doesn’t work – simply because we don’t see the problem.

When a leader does not notice that something is going awry in the organisation, no steps are taken to solve the problem, and that may be detrimental to the business. On the other hand, you may see the problem, but you find it difficult to identify the cause of it and thus also a potential solution. In order to be able to act, you need to know your options, and first of all, you need to acknowledge that something is wrong in the first place.

Hey leader – you’ve got a problem

Let’s reverse the order and take a look at what should make a leader acknowledge the need for another and more effective leadership approach. Often, objective signs will reveal the presence of challenges that require a change in leadership behaviour. Employee turnover may be increasing (or be high), absence due to illness is high, or the company is suffering of poor performance in one or more areas. Regardless of the symptoms, the cause can often be found in leadership behaviour that does not match the business context.

That doesn’t mean that the leader is a poor leader, but it’s likely that the specific leadership behaviour is out of sync with the task at hand. In order for things to improve, the leader must acknowledge that his/her leadership behaviour must change to match the specific business context. Maybe the soft leader needs to be less soft or the tough leader less tough. Maybe the inclusive leader needs to lay down the law more, and maybe the introvert and less communicating leader needs to adopt a more open and communicative style.

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Learn, train and act

Realising the need for change in leadership behaviour may sometimes be helped along by a leadership assessment, which visualises the challenges for the individual leader. When the need for change has been acknowledged and understood, the individual leader can start exploring new ways to lead. The new methods and habits must then be trained, which will require the assistance of others; be it colleagues, leaders and/or consultants (either external consultants or in-house consultants from the company’s HR department).

It may be a difficult process, because habits tend to stick and often take time to change. And if the required behaviour is far from, and maybe even at odds with, the leader’s natural instincts, it may be very hard work. It requires determination from the developing leader, and it takes understanding and support from the leader’s leader. It is not until the acknowledgement, learning and training phases are completed that the leader is capable of doing what is necessary to lead in the right way in the actual business context. And when the process is successfully completed, the individual leader, and later the entire management layer, is able to change the conditions that are holding back the company’s development and performance.

When the leader learns the mechanisms and his/her own inner workings, he/she can start navigating the matrix of leadership behaviour comprising the behavioural areas of leading, managing, structuring and changing. An effective leader can – or can learn – to find the right balance between the four behaviour categories, thereby adjusting his/her leadership behaviour to a specific context to benefit the leader, the leader’s employees, the leader’s colleagues and ultimately the bottom line.

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