Healthy Leadership: What does it mean and why is it important?

At a meeting with the senior leadership team discussing a new and improved performance management system, several senior executives raised questions about the efficacy of the system. They questioned it’s relevance to the organization, its impact on employee morale and so on. It seemed odd for these concerns to arise without the group even having discussed the new system or having a shared understanding of it.

Was this the leadership team that was going to make the entire organization believe the new performance management system was a good thing for the business and for all individuals? At this point, I found it very hard to believe.

A little probing revealed that the leadership were concerned about themselves too. “What if I lose my job?”, “What if I get a bad rating?”, “What if I get transferred?”, “Will this affect my reputation within the organization?” or “Will I get demoted?”.

Interestingly, the reaction of the leadership team had been left out in the CEO’s strategy for rolling out this new plan. He had assumed, they would understand and lead the way. “They are experienced, mature professionals in leadership positions.” The part the CEO forgot was that though they were the organization’s leadership team, they were also individuals; human beings with self-interest and emotions.

This is not a case in isolation. I see this in my work with leadership teams consistently. We take the leaders for granted. And some of my latest experiences forced me to explore this occurrence deeper simply by making me acutely uncomfortable about the way leadership was viewed within organizations.

I found some answers in George Barna’s book “The Power of Team Leadership: Achieving Success Through Shared Responsibility”, where he says, “Most of us have bought into an unhealthy understanding of leadership… I believe we have unrealistic expectations from our leaders.” Though written in the context of faith and religion, the observation seemed as relevant to the corporate world.

His statement is accompanied by interesting statistics of expectations people have from leaders, including 87% wanting leaders motivate people and 63% wanting leaders to communicate vision and direction. These statistics are not surprising. As Daniel Goleman et al say in their book “Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence”, “No matter what the leaders set out to do… their success depends on how they do it. Even if they get everything else just right, if leaders fail in the primal task of driving emotions in the right direction, nothing they do will work as well as it could or should.”

It is anyone’s guess how well the leaders might drive emotions in the right direction, if they are themselves in emotional turmoil. It falls to the CEO therefore, to be the one looking out for his leadership team, so they may in turn lead the way for everyone else.

My observations led me to make a comparison of healthy and unhealthy leadership behaviors. Here’s what I came up with:

healthy leadership

Healthy leadership requires active and conscious effort. From my work in change consulting, here are five simple strategies for CEOs to adopt in making leaders effective at leadership:

Make change secure

John Kotter in his book, “Leading Change” says it well, when he says people need to feel a sense of urgency to make change happen. Not a sense of anxiety. And that is a fine line. Significant, however. Leaders need to feel that the time to make the change is now – in the interest of their growth and that of the business. In the interest of their growth, mind you, not in the interest of saving the jobs and their skin

Encourage emotional expression

Leaders need a place to be angry, to be upset, to be unsure. And that is best done within the leadership team. It is critical for the CEO to be able to encourage diverse opinions that stem not only from reason, but also from vague statements such as, “I don’t know”, “I am not sure”, “I don’t feel comfortable” or “I don’t like this”

Invest time making people comfortable

Leaders need to feel comfortable about the way the feel about the change, without losing focus of the urgency or criticality of the change. If they are not, what an employee typically hears is “This is the process”. And when leaders who are supposed be the decision makers within an organization start to use the process escape, ownership takes a severe beating

Champion transparency

For a leadership team to operate as one cohesive unit, it is critical for everyone to be on the same page, have the identical and complete information to work out of and feel involved in every step of the decision making process.

Ask them what they need

Every time I have asked this question to members of leadership teams, I have been met with first an embarrassed smile and then an awkward, heartfelt “Thank you”. To make leaders feel supported, it is important to ask them what they need to make a change happen and offer that support. It communicates they haven’t been taken for granted and sets the ground for them to come up and say they need help.

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