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There’s a general perception in business that a tough, no-nonsense, target driven approach is the key to effective leadership through tough economic times. But new research from the UK challenges that long-held assumption, and suggests instead that it’s leaders who concentrate on building effective relationships with their teams who really stand out when the going gets tough
According to UK workplace think-tank The Work Foundation, effective leaders put people and relationships front-and-centre as they strive to tackle the challenges of the recession. Based on over 250 in-depth qualitative interviews, the two-year study, "Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership", proves that highly people-centred leaders, rather than their target-obsessed, autocratic counterparts that consistently deliver outstanding performance in organisations.
The findings could have profound implications for how organisations assess and measure the performance of their leaders; for the criteria used to select potential leaders, and the training and development techniques used to foster effective leadership; and on the way individuals approach their own personal development at work.
"The evidence from our research indicates there needs to be a paradigm shift for all leaders who remain fixated on numbers and targets," explained lead author Penny Tamkin. "Outstanding leaders focus on people, attitudes and engagement, co-creating vision and strategy. Instead of one-to-one meetings centred on tasks, they seek to understand people and their motives. Instead of developing others through training and advice, they do this through challenge and support. They manage performance holistically, attending to the mood and behaviour of their people as well as organisational objectives. And instead of seeing people as one of many priorities, they put the emphasis on people issues first."
Six high-profile UK organisations took part in the study, including EDF Energy, Guardian Media Group, Tesco and Unilever. One of the most striking elements to emerge from the research was the stark contrast between the behaviour of merely "good" and truly "outstanding" leaders. Until all the interviews were completed and analysed, researchers were unaware of whether the leaders participating in the study were deemed "outstanding" or "good" in terms of their achievements and how they were perceived by those reporting directly to them.
"Outstanding leaders are focussed on performance but they see people as the means of achieving great performance and themselves as enablers," added author Gemma Pearson. "They don’t seek out the limelight for themselves but challenge, stretch and champion others, giving them the space and support to excel."
The report reveals three key principles that were common to outstanding leaders in the study group:
- They think and act systemically, seeing the whole picture rather than compartmentalising
- They see people as the sole route to performance and are deeply people and relationship centred rather than just people oriented
- They are self-confident without being arrogant; they are aware of their strengths and their position of influence, yet use these for the benefit of their organisation and its people.
"Our findings strongly suggest that an approach which connects leaders to people and people to purpose defines outstanding leadership. Leadership that focuses on mutuality and respect is not only good for people but good for organisations too," said Tamkin.
The full report "Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership" is available for download from www.theworkfoundation.com.