There is no prescriptive list of ‘what-to-do’ that will turn someone into an exceptional leader.
~Dr. Jeb Hurley
Earlier this year, I wrote an article discussing the issues with team leader training in many organizations. In it, I noted that most of the programs are built on 20th-century models and try to provide a standard prescription for success. More recently, I spoke at a leadership event and was surprised when one of the other speakers began presenting a list of “30 leadership challenges”. As the speaker was covering the obstacles one-by-one, what struck me was that the 30 challenges were a mix of 20th-century ideas—but more significantly, they were a prescriptive list of WHAT an aspiring leader should do with no insights into HOW to do them.
There Isn’t a Leadership Rx
Over the span of my 30-year career—which included roles from team leader to CEO in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 to startups—I’ve tried, experienced, and observed a broad range of approaches to leadership. During my doctoral research on team leadership and engagement across six countries in Asia, I gained a deep appreciation of how people’s life experiences and cultures affect their approach to leading teams. I came to realize that there isn’t a prescriptive list of “what-to-do” that will turn someone into an exceptional leader. In fact, successful executives and entrepreneurs in places like China, India, and Japan view the Western (and particularly the US) leadership “experts” who offer quick-fix solutions with a blend of incredulity and skepticism.
People’s life experiences and cultures affect their approach to leading teams.
That tendency to over-prescribe the same list of actions over-and-over raised my curiosity as to why people in the leadership development industry continue to focus on lists of “what” leaders should do, versus clear, concise “how” to do it. I did some quick, informal research* that may explain why so many 20th-century ideas are prescribed to aspiring leaders in the form of lists of what to do—most of the people writing the prescriptions have little to no hands-on team leadership experience. That’s a bit like a physician who read a book about emergency medicine trying to improve the effectiveness of an ER with a lengthy list of actions, without having experienced the chaotic reality first-hand.
That lack of front-line and senior-level experience also explains why leaders with deep, global expertise view those prescriptions with skepticism. Experienced leaders know that there is no generic prescription for becoming an exceptional leader. Instead, they focus on developing the behaviors that are effective in creating both exceptional leaders and extraordinary teams based upon individual strengths and the cultural and industry context in which people reside. Most importantly, they help aspiring leaders learn HOW to do that.
Know your Why. Define Your What. Then Focus on How.
Simon Sinek gets it right in his book Find Your Why. He describes the purpose of the book as “… the steps to show people how to actually do it.” If you aspire to excellence for you and your team, your “why”—your purpose—will include a drive to inspire others to do their best and be their best, the need to make a difference for others while working with others, and the ambition to progress your career by demonstrating exceptional leadership abilities. To realizing your purpose, you must understand the few critical behaviors and actions that develop trust and strengthen relationships, leading to team effectiveness and wellbeing — your “what”. Then, focus on how to make it happen. If you aspire to develop an exceptional team, your “what” should include:
- Laying a solid team foundation
- Inspiring individual motivation
- Coaching team relationships
With your “what” clarified, turn your time and attention to “how”, starting with these practices:
- Create a solid team foundation through clarity of purpose—the team’s why—and establish the shared values and norms by which the team operates.
- Inspire individual motivation by tapping into people’s core psychological needs for purpose, competency, and autonomy. Those needs are common to every human being.
- Coach team relationships by consistently identifying and closing experience-expectation gaps on and across teams.
Your approach to leadership should reflect and build upon unique cultural and social dynamics and reflect your authentic self.
By focusing on the “how”, and emphasizing behaviors and actions that foster strong, trusting relationships, you will reduce risk, increase team effectiveness, and significantly improve people’s wellbeing. Focusing on “how” also helps you recognize that developmental and cultural factors play a big part in your success. What may be a practical approach in Bangalore is unlikely to work as well in Tokyo or New York. Your approach to leadership should reflect and build upon unique cultural and social dynamics and reflect your authentic self. Just remember that developing trust and relationship strength is common to every extraordinary team.
*A random sample of 50 people on LinkedIn who describe themselves as ‘leadership coaches’ and promote programs to improve team leader performance. The results showed:
- Four out of the 50 had multi-year, multi-level team leadership experience
- None of them had international leadership experience
- Zero offer a measure of the impact of their program
For deeper insights into crafting an extraordinary team, you can get a signed copy of my book: Team Relationship Management: The Art of Crafting Extraordinary Teams — or schedule a complimentary 30-minute webinar — at www.drjebhurley.com. Team Relationship Management is also available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions.