Dr. Sunnie Giles, an organizational scientist, executive coach, and leadership development consultant, undertook a rather interesting and insightful research recently, which unravelled leadership concepts by understanding what goes in the minds of leaders around the world. A leadership expert, Dr. Sunnie, founded an innovative programme called Quantum Leadership, which combines neuroscience, adaptive systems approach and business to understand leadership.
Her research was recently featured in Harvard Business Review, and sought an answer to the age old question: What makes an effective leader? The first round of study undertaken by her – which comprised of 195 leaders in 15 countries spread over 30 organisations – brought to light certain noteworthy findings about leadership. The methodology was rather simple: participants were made to choose the 15 most important leadership competencies from a list of 74. The study helps one understand the priorities of what goes into making of a good leader – from a leader’s perspective. The following have been identified by Dr. Sunnie as top priority competencies by leaders around the world:
Strong Ethics; Communicating Clear Expectations
About 67% of the respondents selected ‘high ethical and moral standards’ as one of the most important competencies and 56% selected ‘communicating clear expectations’. According to the study, these competencies when taken together, create a safe and trusting environment. By having a strong regard for moral and ethics, a leader has an example to set and also instil confidence in his/her employees. Additionally, clear communication will result in a safe and relaxed environment, where everyone is on the same page. Dr. Sunnie also extends the validity of the point by evoking neuroscience, where a threat to safety might “... lose access to the social engagement system of the limbic brain and the executive function of the prefrontal cortex, inhibiting creativity and the drive for excellence.”
Provides goals and objectives with loose guidelines
The next most importance competency was identified as allowing employees to self-organise their time and work. Since delegation of work and macro-managing is one of the prime responsibilities of a leader, it becomes important to let go of absolute control. She also says that leaders might be sceptical to let people self-organise for the fear of making mistakes and for the fear of failing. In order to do this better, she advises, “...we can train our bodies to experience relaxation instead of defensiveness when stress runs high. Try to separate the current situation from the past, share the outcome you fear most with others instead of trying to hold on to control, and remember that giving power up is a great way to increase influence — which builds power over time.”
Communicate often and freely; Create a feeling of succeeding and failing together
Associated with the idea of morphing a sense of connection and belonging within the team, these competencies attest to the basic human nature – to exist in social settings and not isolation. Again, she used neurosciences to verify this claim, “From a neuroscience perspective, creating connection is a leader’s second most important job. Once we feel safe (a sensation that is registered in the reptilian brain), we also have to feel cared for (which activates the limbic brain) in order to unleash the full potential of our higher functioning prefrontal cortex.” Dr. Sunnie also suggests simple gestures to inculcate this feeling of togetherness, namely, “smile at people, call them by name, and remember their interests and family members’ names, pay focused attention when speaking to them, and clearly set the tone of the members of your team having each other’s backs. Using a song, motto, symbol, chant, or ritual that uniquely identifies your team can also strengthen this sense of connection.”
Flexible to changing opinions; Being open to new ideas and providing safety
The above competencies encourage learning, and flexibility in approaches. It is never easy to own up to our mistakes, more so, to a team. She says, “...the negative effects of stress on brain function are partly to blame — in this case they impede learning... Our opinions are more inflexible even when we’re presented with contradicting evidence, which makes learning almost impossible.” It is essential that leaders themselves are open to the idea of learning, not form judgements prematurely, and ensure that people realise that their ideas are given consideration. Failure, although is essential to learn, but is also unforgiving in nature. The only way to support learning in this perspective is to encourage risk-taking, with rapid feedback and correction.
Being committed to ongoing training; Help employees grow into a next-generation leader
A leader’s job will always be incomplete, unless he doesn’t ensure his team is growing. Again, people at the receiving end of nurture and those who are taught feel a sense of gratitude and loyalty. Any effort taken by a leader to invest in the growth of his/her team will make them motivated to express their gratitude by giving it their best. She says, “If you want to inspire the best from your team, advocate for them, support their training and promotion, and go to bat to sponsor their important projects.”
All these competencies are not unheard of, but reflect the order of priorities as viewed by the leaders. Studies like these have a lot to teach us about the elusive trait of leadership, for all these areas and characteristics do not come naturally to humans. Communication, giving up control, aversion to change, putting others before our self are virtues that are not engrained in our DNA, and need to be worked upon. If nothing, this study has reignited the debate of whether great leaders are born or made, for it makes a case for the latter. It might come naturally to some, but according to this study, which borrows from leaders and neurosciences, it can be fostered.