Leadership and Employee Engagement - The Great Balancing Act

There is a myriad of leadership and employee engagement models - some good, some not so good, and some that are downright wrong when you compare them with the wealth of leadership research conducted over the past 50 years. As I accelerate towards 40, I've now spent 22 years studying, researching and applying various models of leadership and employee engagement. While I'm still learning new things every week (mostly via the clients I'm privileged to work with through my consulting business), I figure now is as good a time as any to share some of my thoughts. Hopefully it will help to cut through the 'noise' confronting those contemplating leadership development and trying to get the best out of their people.

There are some core principles that underpin the approach I take to leadership development:

Principle one - leadership can be developed. The reality is that anyone can learn to become a better leader. While some people reach their first leadership roles with capabilities that help them to 'hit the ground running', I'm yet to meet a leader that doesn't have some flaws. The best leaders recognise that they still have plenty to learn. They also appreciate that great leadership starts with understanding yourself, and working out ways to use your strengths to overcome your weaknesses. Your ability to lead others is grounded in your ability to understand and manage yourself. The good news is that we can all develop these core capabilities.

Principle two - there isn't one 'right way to lead'. The research is clear - the best leaders are flexible and can use a range of leadership styles. Despite this, there are plenty of leadership models that present a 'correct' way to lead others and a 'correct' culture to create, ignoring that what people need from their leaders varies greatly depending on the situation and individual. In my view the best leaders are true to themselves. There's a lot we can learn from people like Steve Jobs and, if we were seeking to turn Apple around over the past 15 years, then we could robotically apply his approach to leadership. However the important factors are understanding who you are, being genuine to that, and being adaptable to the situation you are in.

Principle three - great leaders deliver results. The best leaders balance the needs of individuals with the needs of the organisation. I'll talk more about how I see that working in a moment. In my view, the best way of measuring leadership effectiveness is to look at the results that leaders achieve through others. The level of employee engagement provides the link between the leader and the results that are achieved. 

The key to delivering results is to create an environment that appeals to what motivates people (see more in my blog about Angry-Bird-aholics). Daniel Pink in his book "Drive" summarises a wealth of research indicating there are three motives that drive people once pay is 'reasonable' and 'fair' (more on that in a future blog), namely:
  • Purpose - desire to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than myself
  • Autonomy - desire for freedom over task (what I do), time (when I do it), team (who I do it with) and technique (how I do it)
  • Mastery - desire to become better at something that matters to me

These motives link to a number of expectations that individuals consciously or sub-consciously seek from their organisation:
  • Clarity - being clear about the strategy and my role in helping to achieve it
  • Authority - having an appropriate level of freedom to achieve results
  • Capability - being appropriately challenged and able to develop my capabilities further

In return, the best leaders create an environment that balances these individual expectations with those of the organisation:
  • Expectations - in return for clarity, there are standards required of me
  • Accountability - in return for authority, I am held accountable for the results expected of me
  • Excellence - in return for capability development, I am expected to strive for excellence both in what I achieve (results) and how I achieve (capabilities and behaviours) 

The model is summarised in this diagram, showing the balance between the needs of the individual and the organisation:

Great leaders are the ones who create an environment that balances the needs of the individual and organisation. In doing so, they create the best opportunity for both the individual and the organisation to achieve, and also create a great place to work.