This was one of the first things I learnt as a young army officer more than 25 years ago; however since then I have come to recognise some nuances in exactly how the way can be shown, thanks to my exposure to responsibilities as a leader of leaders in a global setting, and our experience at IRC Denmark (People & Performance) of developing leadership academies for international companies like DSV, MHI Vestas Offshore Wind, SWEP and Unifeeder.

These nuances are demonstrated nicely in the real-life success stories of the leaders I interviewed for The Leadership Performance Project – my doctoral research project into contextual effective leadership.

My research has revealed that the most effective means of ‘showing the way’ in complex environments where highly educated experts are working to develop new products, services or processes is significantly different from showing the way in a less complex environment where the work is more manually oriented and the aim is to optimise an established business operation.

Showing the way when developing complex new solutions

When leading to promote the creation of solutions with a high degree of ‘newness’ or when leading problem-solving in highly complex matters, a leader has less opportunity to define the problem and the approach to possible solutions themselves. Instead, they need to harness the power of the experts they lead.

In my research, I found that those leaders who are able to ask explorative questions that challenge the assumptions of the experts they lead are more effective when it comes to promoting the creation of new solutions.

This is supported by our experience at IRC Denmark (People & Performance), which shows that a deep level of expertise is needed in those who are asked to lead teams of highly competent experts – although not necessarily in the same field of expertise as the people they lead. Having an area of expertise, whatever that area, fuels the ability of individuals to challenge assumptions, question arguments and facilitate rethinking of approaches, which is what’s needed to maximise the benefit of others’ knowledge and skills.

Other researchers have also investigated ‘distributed leadership’, and in some ways it makes a lot of sense that, when leading experts in highly complex environments, the employees themselves take a co-leadership role in finding the right path within their field of expertise, facilitated by the leader.

So both our consulting experience and the initial findings of The Leadership Performance Project support the argument that simply transferring the same leadership practice from less complex, more operationally-oriented environments to highly complex development environments doesn’t work.

Showing the way in less complex environments

In one of my previous lives as a retail operations manager, I noticed that leadership ran in much the same way as in the army – setting the standard with your own behaviour. In an environment where the ability to perform certain activities with diligence, speed and precision is the path to success, leaders can very effectively point out the successful behaviour of experienced employees and let those employees model the way.

In some cases, the leader themselves can also show how work is done so others can follow and understand the expected performance standards. The environments that allow for this kind of leadership tend to be less complex, with work that can be broken down into tangible and repeatable actions. In these cases, one of the most important tasks for the leader is to make sure that each of these standardised actions are applied in a well-timed and coordinated manner, consistently and effectively.

As one of my interviewed leaders said, ‘one of my primary tasks was to teach my people which different actions we can take, and make them consider the pros and cons of these actions – we need to continuously make small adjustments to keep a high performance.’

The leaders also stressed the importance of empowerment, or when “you teach people how to do it, give them the responsibility and then demand that they act within that responsibility.” This corresponds with what research says; that competence, mandate and accountability to act are three key components in effective empowerment.

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ kind of empowerment

Empowerment doesn’t have to look the same in all contexts. In highly complex environments, it can develop into distributed leadership, where expert employees assume responsibility for defining problems and identifying different solution alternatives, which the leader can only consult on to a certain degree. This distinction is one of the important contextual differences that call for different leader behaviour when we talk about showing the way.

In complex settings a leader may not necessarily have the specialist insight needed to define the problem and possible solutions; however, a leader in a less complex setting has a higher chance of defining possible solutions and thus interact with their employees very concretely about the pros and cons of the options.

So a key driver in choosing the right leader behaviour is the complexity of the context, the competence level of the employees being led, and the business purpose:

  • When the business purpose is to optimise an existing operation rather than innovating or finding new ways of working, leaders can drive continuous improvement by experimenting with small changes, facilitating learning from the actions taken and then converting them into changes to the standard operating procedures.
  • In complex business environments where highly competent employees are working towards the introduction of new services, products or processes, the leader has to facilitate learning in a different manner. A coaching approach is needed where different potential solutions to inherently blurry problems are explored by combining the expert input from employees, with the leader utilising a higher degree of distributed leadership.

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