‘People give their best to leaders who have their back'
In a nutshell, what makes an effective leader? Can anyone become a good leader?
Effective leaders know their people, love their people and inspire their people! That’s what the latest research from neuroscience, psychology and business literature highlights as the foundation of effective leadership and we can all get better at it.
Knowing your people is about learning to listen actively and ask great questions. That will allow you to understand people’s values and strengths, enabling you to bring out the best in your team. This is a real challenge in the current climate, where many leaders can’t see their staff face to face. A 2020 study by Dana Vashdi, from the University of Haifa, tested whether staff working closely together before the crisis were less depressed and lonely. The conclusion was that the more interdependent teams were before lockdown, the more resilient they seemed to be afterwards. As we begin to emerge from another winter of uncertainty and lockdowns we need resilient teams. That resilience will be built on how well we know one another.
Loving your people is about compassion, service and fearlessness. We have seen many leaders get this right over the pandemic. Where leaders in the public or private sector have genuinely looked after their people they have seen productivity improve and creativity flourish. People give their best to leaders who have their back, they go the extra-mile for leaders who care about them. World class sporting teams such as Liverpool FC (managed by Jurgen Klopp) and the England Football Team (led by Gareth Southgate) have shown that even in the high stakes, cut and thrust of professional sport the best leaders know and care for their people in a way that builds trust and loyalty.
Inspiring your people is about co-creating a clear vision for what difference your team makes and then empowering and resourcing people to deliver it. We give our best to visions we believe in, a sense of purpose that gets us out of bed in the morning. Leaders can’t micro-manage people working from home, they need to motivate them and trust them instead. Many organisations still try to motivate people through performance related pay and targets, despite the fact we have known for decades that extrinsic motivators rarely work once people move beyond basic cognitive challenges. In fact ‘carrot & stick’ schemes can lead to worse performance. As leaders we should take money off the table as an issue and then give people a sense of purpose and autonomy. The pandemic has highlighted this more than ever, people want to work in teams where they feel trusted and valued and contribute to something that matters. That sense of purpose is what unleashes the creativity and agility needed to turn car manufacturers into ventilator makers, perfume designers into hand sanitiser producers, athletics gear leaders into surgical mask fabricators.
The British Psychological Society Vice President David Murphy said last year: ‘Our understanding of leadership has been coming from a rather limited perspective, and one perhaps in which the “hero leader model” is more dominant.’ Is that your impression too?
Absolutely. There has been a shift in the research to a focus on transformational leadership, but it has taken a while for that to filter through into the main-stream view of leadership.
The ‘hero leader model’ worked well in an industrial society when most tasks were basic cognitive ones and success depended in people unquestioningly following their leader. That doesn’t work in the current climate where the leader cannot possibly have all the answers. Instead high performance depends on the creation of ideas, taking risks, collaborative problem solving and agility in the face of uncertainty. The organisations who succeed are those that harness the talents of all their staff, disseminating decision making in a way that allows them to spot early warning signals and respond rapidly to change. Even in hierarchical institutions like the Navy, turning followers into leaders is the best way to improve performance, as Captain David Marquet drives home with such clarity in his book ‘Turn the Ship Around’. Empowered staff, strong networks, clear communication and leaders who listen is the only effective response in a world of such uncertainty.
We are hoping that Covid-19 may prove a catalyst for changing peoples’ views on leadership. Many female leaders have been held up as voices of reason and humility when compared to their ‘strongman’ counterparts. They are providing very prominent examples of alternative ways to lead. Jennifer Curtin, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Auckland in New Zealand says: ‘Their successes have been amplified in part because we see…a couple of hyper-masculine leaders responding in a very aggressive way.’
Have you had any particularly good or bad leaders?
Our leadership hero is a Head Teacher called Jane Lunnon – she believes wholeheartedly that a good education encourages young people to find and to use their voices to help make change happen and she is happy to model that herself in speaking to the press about educational issues which matter. Her approach is to build confidence, ambition, and an appreciation of excellence in all aspects of education, but to remember, always, that schools should be places of play and fun and joy! We loved working for her and felt that she modelled the three foundations of leadership by knowing us well, genuinely caring for us and inspiring us to be the best version of ourselves.
What advice would you give to someone who has a bad leader?
Work out what matters to you most. The more you understand your own values the better chance you have of deciding whether or not you need to move job or can continue to work for that person. Also try to ‘job-craft’ where you can. This advice comes from Amy Wrzesniewski, a Yale professor specialising in finding meaning. She recommends thinking about how, in small but meaningful ways, you can change your current work to enhance its connection to your core values. You can try to get your boss involved in this and you can help your team to do this – if you get it right, you’re pretty much guaranteed to improve their performance. Amy suggests that there are three aspects of your job that you can redesign: your tasks, your relationships, and your thoughts.
‘Task crafting’: You can adjust the time you spend on certain tasks and redesign aspects of your role that are flexible. Ask yourself, ‘What are my strengths? How can I use these strengths better?’ So, if you have a keen attention to detail, you might take on more operational tasks or spend time sharing your more detailed input with colleagues, and let others tackle the big picture.
‘Relational crafting’: It is important, where possible, to dedicate your energy to forming meaningful connections with others, and spend less time in situations that drag you down. For example, in a 2003 study entitled ‘Interpersonal sensemaking and the meaning of work’, Wrzesniewski and her colleagues instructed hospital cleaning staff to interact with patients and families in nurturing and kind ways. Although outside the official scope of their jobs, it strengthened their sense of meaning and purpose at work.
‘Cognitive crafting’: This is about changing your perspective about the things you already do. For example, a shop assistant in Starbucks doesn’t just ‘brew coffee’, instead they might consider how they bring people joy as they start their day. Even when you can’t see a positive way of reframing a task, you can try to view it as a learning opportunity and be curious about what you can gain or learn from it. One study entitled ‘Personality Effective Goal-Striving and Enhanced Wellbeing’ found that when people are motivated by curiosity, rather than fear or obligation, they feel more satisfied about their accomplishments.
If you have a bad leader who isn’t keen to chat about meaning and purpose, you could get a group of colleagues together for a communal activity that feels meaningful, which will also increase your sense of purpose. For example, as part of Katy’s PhD research, she asked schools to come up with different ways to boost their wellbeing; they came up with some brilliant ideas that also increased their sense of meaning at work. One group of teachers decided to coach each other, which connected with their values of building positive relationships, caring for others and service. In another school, teachers identified kindness, community and generosity as their values and then decided to set up a scheme of anonymous random acts of kindness. They shared stories of these secret kindness missions on a WhatsApp group.
- Katy Granville-Chapman is a deputy head teacher, an affiliated researcher at the University of Oxford’s Wellbeing Research Centre and the co-founder of a global leadership programme which has participants in 102 countries.
- Emmie Bidston is head of economics at Wellington College and director of the Wellington Leadership and Coaching Institute.
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