Why won’t my employees just do what I tell them? Why am I struggling to motivate my team? Why aren’t they giving me the performance I need?
If any of these questions sound familiar to you, you’re not alone. You were probably promoted because you’re a competent technical professional. You know how to build a bridge, negotiate a deal, or justify a capital expenditure. But whether you’re a middle manager or a CEO, your technical skills usually won’t help you be a better leader.
Effective leadership, however, has an undeniable business value. In one study, Jack Zenger and colleagues (“How Extraordinary Leaders Double Profits”) examined the best (top 10 percent) and worst (bottom 10 percent) leaders at a large commercial bank. On average, the worst leaders’ departments experienced net losses of $1.2 million, while the best leaders boasted profits of $4.5 million.
Sink or Swim is Not a Plan
As any disgruntled employee will attest to, exceptional leadership isn’t commonplace. One recent Center for Creative Leadership study reveals that up to 50 percent of managers are ineffective. And sadly, your company probably isn’t doing much to help you.
First, they probably use the wrong criteria to select leaders by focusing on technical — rather than leadership — skills. Second, most invest precious little to develop leaders, and training is often an isolated, one-size-fits-all event. Without follow-up, 90 percent of information from training programs disappears after three months!
Without organizational support, leaders wanting to improve are left to their own devices. But when they search on Amazon for “leadership books,” they’re assaulted with more than 100,000 options! No wonder leadership feels so complex and impossible.
Luckily, there’s good news. Though psychologists used to believe leaders were “born,” recent research tells a much different story — leadership is an acquirable skill. Recently, a study by Richard Arvey at Singapore’s NUS Business School revealed that a whopping 70 percent of leadership is learned. That means anyone can learn to become an effective leader.
Two Behaviors All Leaders Must Master
For decades, scientists have known everything we need to know about how successful leaders behave. It’s like finding your TV remote tucked under a couch cushion after hours of searching elsewhere: the secrets to leadership really have been here all along.
In 1945, a group Ohio State University researchers set out to disprove the notion that leadership was an inborn personality trait. With 70 International Harvester Company foremen as their subjects, they discovered that leadership effectiveness was related to the presence of two independent behaviors.
First, effective leaders showed consideration, displaying support, compassion, and friendliness to their team. Second, they initiated structure. They clearly defined the role each employee played and drove their performance. Let’s rename these behaviors “people” and “results,” respectively.
Indeed, you probably feel an inherent tension between people and results. On one hand, you must build relationships by connecting with your team, earning trust and motivating them. On the other, you must drive top-and bottom-line results through their performance and productivity. I can drive them to perform, leaders think, or I can be their friend:
Left Side Leader Right Side Leader
Depending on your upbringing, culture, and role models, you’ll find a comfort position between them. For a select few, that position is in the middle, leveraging each outcome to support the other. The rest fall somewhere to the left or the right, and some to the following extremes, such as:
The Cool Parent: Left-side leaders act like the “Cool Parent.” Focusing on the happiness of their team at all costs, they don’t set expectations, give honest feedback, or make tough decisions. Working for a left-side leader might feel pleasant … at first. But as soon as you need tough — but true — feedback, he or she would freeze like a deer in headlights.
The Trail of Dead Bodies Creator: Right-side leaders drive results so aggressively that they leave a “Trail of Dead Bodies.” This leader requires grueling hours, is never satisfied, and withholds recognition lest employees become complacent. Though right-side leaders help you “up your game” initially, in the long-term, you suffer both physically (from over-work) and mentally (from lack of appreciation).
The best leaders are able to move to the middle, focusing on people and results. These bankable leaders create prosperity in the form of achievement, health, happiness and wealth for themselves, their team, and their organization.
Think of the best manager you’ve ever had. He or she might have been a walking contradiction, achieving all of these things at once:
• Care for and understand team members AND set aggressive performance targets.
• Help team members succeed AND expect responsibility for successes and failures.
• Provide recognition AND push continuous improvement.
• Help you enjoy your job AND ensure everyone maximally contributes.
Three Actions to Become More Bankable
1. Gather the Facts
Just like you can’t start a weight-loss program without getting on a scale, you must begin your journey by learning the truth about yourself. We’re often the worst evaluators of our behavior. You may have placed yourself in the middle of the continuum, believing you place an equal emphasis on People and Results—but your team might say, “Are you kidding? You’re a total slave driver!” Use your resources and gather the facts, whether it’s through an assessment or feedback in the form of conversations.
2. Be Laser-Focused
For executive teams, research by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi of Booz & Company shows that as their quantity of goals increases, revenue declines. Similarly, leaders often choose too many development goals. Give yourself the greatest chance for victory by developing one thing at a time. It is far better to make progress in one area than to make little or none in five!
3. Practice Daily
It’s likely that you’ve had a development plan before – that gathered dust in a drawer. You were probably engaging in Delusional Development: the futile hope that just by wanting to get better at something and knowing enough to be dangerous, you’ll show improvement. The amount of deliberate practice you choose will be proportionate to your improvement.
The journey to bankable leadership is like learning a violin concerto: You have to learn the concepts (reading music) and behaviors (playing the violin). Then you practice every day to create beautiful music.
Bankable Leadership Happens Day By Day
From music to science to athletics, people with average talent have achieved extraordinary things. Scientists used to think that superior athletes achieved greatness because of biological differences. But we now know that the best marathon runners, for example, simply train more in the weeks leading up to the marathon.
The same is true for exceptional leaders. That’s why the “I just wasn’t born to be a leader” excuse doesn’t hold water. A person may not want to be a leader, which is entirely different. But with focus and commitment, anyone can become a more effective leader. The daily commitment it requires isn’t always sexy — but will make you a more bankable leader, guaranteed.
A proud leadership geek, executive coach, speaker, and author, Dr. Eurich is the author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom-Line Results and the Power to Deliver Both. She also helps organizations succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams. With a strong passion, Dr. Eurich pairs her scientific grounding in human behavior with a practical approach to solving leadership challenges. Her decade-long career has spanned roles as an external consultant and a direct report to both CEOs and human resources executives. The majority of Dr. Eurich’s work has been with executives in large Fortune 500 organizations, including CH2M HILL, Xcel Energy, Western Union, IHS, Destination Hotels and Resorts, Newmont Mining, Centura Health, CoBiz Financial, the City of Cincinnati, and HCA.
With an M.S. and Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Colorado State University and B.A.s in Theater and Psychology from Middlebury College, she serves on the faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. She has served as an adjunct faculty member in Colorado State University’s Psychology and Business Schools. She is also a popular guest speaker at the University of Denver and Colorado State University’s Executive MBA programs.