What is Leadership – How Do I Lead a Team?

Tom Rath, author of the number 1 Wall Street Journal Bestseller Strengths Finder 2.0, states in his own italics that “people who do have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general… having someone at work who regularly focuses on your strengths can make a dramatic difference [as well].”  He also adds that the manager who completely ignores you is even worse than the one who primarily focuses on your weaknesses; however, he completes his thought by writing that a boss who focuses on your strengths can actually help you not be absolutely miserable at work.  Finally, he contends that “the epidemic of active disengagement we see in workplaces every day could be a curable disease… if we can help the people around us develop their strengths.”  There is a great want in our society for effective and admirable leaders, and after understanding some of the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to possess, we are better prepared to not only lead a group towards a great vision, but to also lead ourselves down an ever-winding and constantly evolving path of life.

Even though this week’s topic will not focus particularly on the sports industry, it is applicable in any setting where leadership is wanted and that includes a league or team’s front office.  What is a leader and how does an effective leader engage her staff?  What is the most important characteristic an effective leader must possess?  These are the questions at the core of this week’s discussion.

What is Leadership?  How do I Engage and Lead My Team?

According to Peter G. Northouse, author of Leadership: Theory and Practices, it “is a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.”  This is the definition I will use for the remainder of this discussion.

Now, as Rath implies in his book, an effective leader creates a positive environment for her staff.  Not all corporate cultures identify a leader by their rank in the company; basically, as Professor John Cooper of Northwestern University’s School of Continuing Studies asserts, some leaders emerge from a group that views them as the most influential members of a team regardless of their title while others gain leader status by occupying a certain position within an organization. The latter is called “Formal Leadership” while the former is known as “Emergent Leadership.”  Indeed, individuals need not follow only one path to leadership; in fact, the environment plays a major role in defining the way.

Even though leadership requires the use of power, it alone will not make you a leader.  Styles are an important part of leadership and how well a leader knows her team will determine how she will engage in task behaviors and relationship behaviors.  A leader must know how much facilitation and guidance the team needs to successfully complete a task without being guilty of either coercive or impoverished management.  She also ought to gauge the team’s need to rely on the leader’s ability to foster relationships and determine how much she must help the team feel comfortable within the work environment.  If a leader does not measure this need well, she could appear to be indifferent to team members’ feelings or much too casual.

So, Cooper recommends that leaders engage their team by exhibiting certain task behaviors, such as: setting clear expectations; evaluating performance and results regularly; setting priorities; communicating both deadlines and milestones; address performance problems; and assigning roles and responsibilities.  He adds that some relationship behaviors leaders ought to exhibit are: include employees in the decision-making process; find ways to encourage; identify and intervene to reduce conflict; coaching; being an excellent listener; maintain a friendly demeanor; and spend time thinking and acting on their development by addressing their weaknesses and focusing on their own strengths.

In the end, Professor Cooper points to Collins’ findings on what he calls “Level 5 Leadership” and explains that the latter requires leaders to exhibit personal humility and professional will, above all.  Lastly, Cooper states that Level 5 Leadership requires a truly effective leader to place the ambition of the company before her ego, be least likely to credit herself when things go right and take the blame when they go wrong, do what needs to be done, and build a lasting organization by empowering team members to rise above their limits.

More information on Level 5 Leadership can be found in Collins’ book Good to Great.  In it, he explains how an effective leader can shift a company’s performance from good to great by studying over a dozen companies he examined.

What is the Most Important Characteristic a Leader Must Possess?

Theoretically speaking, an effective leader is mindful of several factors.  First, she focuses on her personality traits – the distinguishing qualities or inherited characteristics that uniquely influence her thoughts, motivations, and behaviors in a myriad of settings – and use one of her most valuable tools, self awareness, to identify her strengths and weaknesses.  Next, she is keenly aware of her skills and abilities.  Once she is done looking inward, she takes inventory of the behaviors and styles she presents and possesses that an effective leader must master.  Next, she understands the context in which she leads and make a thorough assessment of the team’s culture, situation, members, tasks, and needs.  Lastly, an effective leader must be adaptable enough to adjust her styles and behaviors to fit the context.

By bearing these ideas in mind, one is more apt to better engage team members and lead more effectively.  Cooper mentioned that emotional intelligence – the capacity to recognize our own and others’ feelings and manage emotions well in ourselves and others –  involves self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management and stands as the most valuable asset in a leader’s arsenal.

While there is certainly a broad collection of adjectives that describe a good leader, all those discussed in the above sections have proven both accurate and precise in many theoretical models as evidenced in Peter G. Northouse’s book and John A. Cooper’s academic research and experience as a leadership and organization effectiveness consultant .

Closing Remarks

It appears that an effective and admirable leader is well aware of her strengths and weaknesses, her team’s needs, and the context of the situation.  She possesses a compelling modesty and is gracious, mild-mannered, and willful.  Like Vince Lombardi evidently exemplified in the article I wrote last month, an effective leader must challenge the process, inspire a shared vision, enable others to act, model the way, and encourage the heart.  These are five elements in Kouzes and Posner’s prescriptive model on leadership.  Cooper includes undesirable attributes in his discussion, such as: being a loner, irritable, ruthless, asocial, vague, dictatorial, noncooperative, and egocentric.  Awareness of the organization’s culture and the leader’s capacity to acclimate are vital to a leader’s effectiveness.  In the 5 Factor Model, extraversion stands as the most important element among the other four: openness to experience, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness (the least important of all).

Lastly, according to Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee in Resonant Leadership, the leader’s great personal challenge is how well she can manage the cycle of sacrifice and renewal through mindfulness, hope, and compassion.

Even if one does not necessarily long to lead a group towards a distant destination set atop a clear and grand vision, knowing how to lead enables you to lead yourself towards your goals through both expected and unexpected challenges.  After all, no one but you decides to rise in the morning, close your eyes as you drift to sleep, and engage in the activities that define the hours in between.  Leadership ability prepares the individual to willfully pursue the goals that are inspired by even the loftiest of dreams.  In the end, even though it was not discussed here, a thorough understanding of leadership also creates a knowledgeable, skilled, empowered, and able follower.

A knowledge of leadership can lead to welcome and unexpected results.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

This article would not have been possible without the lessons I learned in Professor John A. Cooper’s class.  The books Leadership: Theory and Practice; Strengths Finder 2.0; and Resonant Leadership played a vital role in the arguments I made above.  They provide clear and well-reasoned arguments on leadership theories and the challenges leaders face in today’s society.  Also, thank you for your continued readership and participation.

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