Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How eXceptional Leaders Achieve eXtraordinary Results Under Pressure

Greg was organized, likable, and communicated well. He was promoted to director of finance after three years as a mid-level manager. Team meetings ran like a Swiss watch. His managers told me that Greg included them in decision-making and that he delegated well. He also fostered an environment of creativity and openness to change. Unfortunately...

The economy worsened and the CEO demanded more productivity. That’s when cracks in Greg's leadership armor began to show. Three of his middle managers failed to perform under the increased pressure. They missed project deadlines, were unresponsive to their colleagues service needs, and failed to engage their own team members in dealing with the difficult times. Employee morale plummeted and turnover skyrocketed. Craig finally counseled his three managers, but they didn’t improve because he failed to hold them accountable for implementing an improvement plan. A year after Greg was promoted... he was fired.

How Often Are You Strong to a Fault?
Greg’s problem was “lopsided leadership” – the tendency to overuse a strength (i.e., to be strong to a fault), especially under stress. Leaders who over-focus on their strongest style(s) are like muscle-bound bodybuilders who don’t stretch. They’re inflexible, rigid, and unable to adapt to changing circumstances. How often does this happen to you when you’re under pressure?

In his book, The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman states, “It’s a world that demands constant adjustment and does not tolerate leaders who are unable or unwilling to build up their weak muscles—or who overuse their strong muscles.”

Based on my review of hundreds of studies that included more than 171, 000 leaders, I discovered that relying on your strengths is not enough anymore. What got you here won’t get you there! You need to avoid overdoing your strengths (and shore up your weaknesses), especially when you’re feeling stressed. Before we discuss how four leadership styles can eliminate lopsided leadership, let’s take a quick look at today’s challenges...

Do These Challenges Look Familiar?
Listed below are the top challenges leaders face in today’s whitewater work environment based on a survey of 1,600 global leaders and my analysis of the issues affecting thousands of leaders who have attended our courses (1) How many of these are affecting you and your organization?

1. Control costs
2. Grow the business
3. Motivate others
4. Hold others accountable for results
5. Meet short-term objectives
6. Innovate for long-term growth
7. Get more done with less
8. Take time to coach/mentor others
9. Increase teamwork/collaboration
10. Achieve your own performance goals
11. Beat global competition in a turbulent economy
12. Address local and increasingly fragmented customer needs
13. Use the advances of the Internet and other technologies
14. Focus on your core competencies
15. Manage generational and cultural differences
16. Adhere to uniform policies and procedures
17. Embrace the accelerated pace of change
18. Provide stability to keep others from overwhelmed by change
19. Meet the increasing demands of work
20. Have a fulfilling home life

As you identified your challenges, did you notice that these challenges actually pull in opposite directions? If you read the list again with the word and at the end of each odd-numbered statement, you’ll spot today's critical leadership challenge.

“The problem, of course, is that… management is complicated and confusing. Be global and be local. Collaborate and compete. Change perpetually and maintain order. Make the numbers while nurturing your people. How is anyone supposed to reconcile all this?” (2)
    Professor Henry Mintzberg

Conquering Your Paradoxical Challenges

Leadership scholar Henry Mintzberg, the top challenges, and even Greg’s true story, teach us that leaders at all levels are being stretched by issues that pull them in opposite directions (i.e., “paradoxical tensions”). According to research by OnPoint Consulting, and many others, the most successful leaders conquer their challenges by managing these paradoxical tensions effectively. (3)

If paradox is the essence of your leadership challenge, shouldn't it be essential to your leadership thinking?

In a word, YES... based on my extensive research, experience as an executive, and decades of coaching/teaching 10,000 leaders. Being strong in one style or two styles is no longer adequate. If you want to consistently conquer your paradoxical challenges and achieve your goals, you need to dynamically juggle four leadership styles throughout the day. Let me explain...

The Four Interdependent Styles of Leadership

eXpanding your leadership effectiveness begins by recognizing that leadership consists of two primary dimensions:

I. WHAT you do - the tasks that need to be done.
II. HOW you work with others - how to interact with those doing.

Each of these dimensions has two distinct sides:
I. WHAT you do:
- Major Tasks (e.g., conduct a strategy retreat)
 - Minor Tasks (e.g., review details of a project plan)

II. HOW you work with others:
- Take Charge (e.g., confront a poor performer)
 - Take Care (e.g., mentor team members)

Research tells us that today’s paradoxical challenges requires leaders to juggle both sides of both dimensions simultaneously throughout the day. The eXpansive Leadership Model (XLM) expresses these four "requirements" as four fundamental leadership styles. The Rational and Visionary leadership styles represent the task dimension (I). The Empowering and Commanding leadership styles represent the relationship dimension (II). Each style is described below:

RATIONAL – Focus on the Facts
The rational leadership style is the left-brain, logical thinking side of leadership. Leaders who are highly skilled in this style clearly define their and their team members’ roles. They excel at setting short-term objectives and generating detailed plans with milestones. Performance expectations are plainly spelled out. Because they actively seek feedback, effective rational leaders understand their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of those around them. They also stay in touch with their team members, peers, their boss and their customers.

VISIONARY – Imagine the Future
The visionary leadership style is the creative, dreamer aspect of leadership. Those highly skilled in this style create flexible approaches to solve problems, make decisions and achieve strategic goals. They bring new products, services or processes to fruition primarily because they are effective in launching cross-functional experiments. Visionary leaders also inspire others to question the status quo by embracing change, creativity, and open-mindedness. They enjoy reflecting on global issues, thinking about long-term consequences and pondering future possibilities.

The empowering leadership style is the servant side of leadership. Those highly skilled in this style enable others to do their best every day by delegating well, as well as coaching and involving team members in decisions. They are masters at orchestrating diverse individuals into high-performing, energized teams that work well across the enterprise. Empowering leaders build trust and empathy by patiently listening to other perspectives and beliefs without prejudgment. They also demonstrate fairness, honesty, integrity, and humility in all their interactions.

COMMANDING – Take Charge
The commanding leadership style is the strong, forceful side of leadership. Those highly skilled in this style work extremely hard to fulfill commitments and execute strategies. They push to accomplish tasks, projects and goals on time. They are not afraid to solicit opposing views when making important decisions. They are also comfortable with ambiguity; they don't need all the data in order to move forward. Commanding leaders control their emotions and moods under pressure. In addition, they refuse to allow themselves or their team to be the victim during adversity. They take personal responsibility for their choices and consequences.

The Core Competencies in Each Style

Each of the four fundamental styles is comprised of four core competencies. Taken together, these competencies describe the essence of what you must develop to master each style.

The XLM blends all four styles, and their competencies, into a holistic leadership model seen below:

The eXpansive Leadership Method (XLM)

There is an avalanche of evidence confirming, “One leadership style is not enough” if you want to conquer your challenges and reach your goals. Your job as a leader is to first identify your (and your team's) strengths and weaknesses, then develop a focused plan to lead with your strengths and manage your weakness. (The XLM assessment is a great, inexpensive tool to help you do just that. Click here for more info: )

Does Leadership Development Pay?

Of course, you might ask if organizations that develop their leaders to rise to the challenge actually perform better. A McKinsey survey found that companies scoring in the top quintile of talent-management practices outperform their industry's mean return to shareholders by a remarkable 22 percentage points. (4) In addition, Laurie Bassi and her colleagues measured the effect of spending on employee education by following the stock prices of 575 publicly traded firms. They found that companies that invested the most in their employees outperformed the S&P 500 by 17 to 35%. (5). Finally, Bob Eichinger and his colleagues reviewed the research on effective human resource interventions and reported that training does indeed pay. (6) They cite a four-year study by Morrow and Rupinski, which found a mean ROI of 45% for managerial training and 418% for sales/technical training. (7) The moral of the story is that development does pay if it's based on research-proven tools.

What’s next?
Let me know how I can help you or your team conquer your paradoxical challenges and reach your goals.


Dave Jensen, Author
XLM Assessment and Profile

P.S. Dave Jensen is a Senior Lecturer on leadership at Emory University’s School of Business and president of the training/coaching firm S3, Inc. He and his team transform proven leadership tools into your success stories. Dave is also a popular speaker at conferences, meetings, and workshops. He can be reached in Los Angeles, CA at (310) 397-6686 and

1. MWorld, Winter 2006, pages 21 – 26.

2. Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg: The Five Minds of the Manager. Harvard Business Review, November: 54 -- 63, 2003.

3. Richard Lepsinger: How Top Performing Companies Get Ahead of the Pack and Stay There. American Management Association, MWorld, Summer 2007, 3 – 4.


5. Laurie Bassi and Daniel McMurrer, How's Your Return on People? Harvard Business Review, March, 2004, page 18. Reprint F0403B.

6. Robert Eichinger, Michael Lombardo, and Dave Ulrich. 100 Things You Need To Know: Best People Practices For Managers And HR, Lominger Ltd., Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2006, 207 -- 212.

7. Morrow, C. and Rupinski, M., An Investigation of the Effect and Economic Utility of Corporate Wide Training, Personnel Psychology, 50 (1), 1997, 91 -- 120.)

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