Great results in the marketplace — and in the community — can only occur when people make extraordinary things happen within their organisations. The key is great leadership.
There is overwhelming evidence that great leadership creates great workplaces and, in turn, great workplaces create great results.
When Barry Posner and I began our leadership research over 30 years ago, we had a simple question: What do leaders do when they are operating at their personal best? We asked people to recall a time when they set an individual leadership standard of excellence, present or past, and then we asked them to tell us what they did during those peak performances.
We inquired about the context, their intentions, their specific actions, the people involved, lessons learnt, and other aspects of the case. We wanted to know how they made extraordinary things happen.
We gathered stories from leaders at all levels in the public sector and education, profit-based firms and non-profit, agriculture and high technology, manufacturing and utilities, banking and health care, natural resources and retailing, and the arts and community service. From just about every kind of organisation there is.
The leaders were employees and volunteers, young and old, women and men from over 70 countries representing many different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds. We knew that leaders resided in every city and every country, in every function and every organisation, and we wanted to look everywhere we possibly could to find examples of exemplary leadership. We still do this today.
After analysing thousands of these leadership experiences, we discovered, and we continue to find, that regardless of the times or the settings, people who guided others along pioneering journeys followed surprisingly similar paths. Though each personal-best experience was unique in its individual expression, there were clearly identifiable behaviours and actions that were consistent across the vast majority of cases.
We found that when making extraordinary things happen in organisations, leaders engaged in what we call ‘The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership’. When performing at their best, leaders:
• Model the way
• Inspire a shared vision
• Challenge the process
• Enable others to act
• Encourage the heart
These practices are not the private property of only the people we studied. Nor do they belong to a few select shining stars. The Five Practices are available to anyone who accepts the leadership challenge.
Our message is similar to the message of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rahshid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. In 2013 he wrote, “Anyone who can improve the life of those around him is a leader. Anyone who can serve people and make them happy is a leader. A leader is also a person capable of creating positive change, whether at work or at home and of innovating and creating even the simplest of things.
“All people are born with the seeds of such qualities which they can nurture and grow, so that, bit by bit, they advance on the path to leadership and ultimately evolve into great leaders.”
The inescapable conclusion from analysing thousands of personal-best leadership cases is that leadership matters around the world. The stories that people tell us are much more similar in terms of actions, behaviours, and processes than they are different, regardless of context.
Measurable, learnable and teachable
The truth is that leadership is an identifiable set of skills and abilities that are available to anyone. It is measurable, learnable and teachable.
Here in the Gulf, it is widely recognised that exemplary leadership is the key to outstanding organisational success. Achieving this is the responsibility of anyone willing to take up the challenge, to take responsibility for being a driving force, to make a difference, and to evolve into great leaders.
To have a significant impact on people, on organisations, and on communities, the wise leader needs to invest in learning the behaviours that will enable them to be the very best. It is because there are so many — not so few — leaders that extraordinary things happen on a regular basis.
The writer is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership at Santa Clara University and has co-authored over 30 books, including the award-winning The Leadership Challenge (published by Wiley) He will be providing a keynote at the HR Summit and Expo in Dubai on November 18.