The Case for Choosing Not to Lead

Many organizations designate high-performing employees as future leaders. Rising to leadership positions typically requires business acumen and performance.  However, outstanding leadership demands so much more. Leadership, particularly at the highest levels, is a sacred territory and a privilege that should be granted to the few. Sadly, many organizations do the opposite.  Leaders are often selected based on current business performance and metrics rather than for their intrinsic leadership behaviors and ability to motivate and inspire others.  Candidates often are placed in succession boxes and enticed with potentially lucrative rewards.  In addition, there is tremendous pressure to enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to assume higher positions of leadership.  If the successor is not perceived as enthusiastic and passionate about the new position, his or her career may be adversely affected, or their value to the organization may diminish.

To borrow an analogy from the world of science, outstanding leaders have qualities that are at the “DNA” level.  Similar to the DNA code, these distinguishing qualities of great leaders are not readily transferred or copied to others.  They are part of the essence of a person. Leaders who are interested in developing these skills must “unlearn” their current leadership styles and rewire.   Most research supports the premise that unlearning is more difficult than learning.  A great deal of commitment and work is required to transform those who do not inherently carry this leadership DNA. Often, organizations confuse the requirements of this type of transformation with tactical and remedial leader training and development programs.  These may include communication effectiveness, executive presence, and organizational/planning skills.

Listed below are critical competencies for outstanding leadership.  As you review this list, note whether those in your organizations, destined for senior leadership positions, are able to demonstrate these:

  1. Leading with a heart and a backbone.  Showing empathy, understanding, support, and mentoring while driving the mission and values of the organization.  Balancing delivering business results with the art of motivating and inspiring
  2. Reflective leadership. Regularly slowing down to reflect and use judgment, rather than reacting to information and events and reflexively passing judgment and making hasty decisions
  3. Next level leadership. Letting go of habitual behaviors and strengths that have resulted in climbing the corporate ladder to take on new skills and leadership behaviors required for the next role.  Delegating; having a learning mindset; always reaching for the next plateau
  4. Managing the loneliness. Making difficult and principled decisions in the service of the enterprise that are not always popular with a majority of stakeholders. Pushing through the loneliness, in the service of the future vision and rewards awaiting the enterprise. Being less concerned about being liked and popular, and more energized by the respect of colleagues
  5. Situational leadership. Adjusting one’s style and message to the audience, and connecting to hearts and minds.  Able to motivate constituencies to reach and stretch beyond their normal comfort zones.  This entails deep and active listening skills and the ability to frame and deliver the communication accordingly
  6. Ethics and motivation.  Being in the service of the organization vs. masquerading own agenda under the guise of the organizational strategy and mission. Truly being a servant to the organization, obsessed with delivering the best outcome for the greatest good of the enterprise
  7. Authenticity and courage.  Consistently regarding values and beliefs vs. being more like a weather vane, constantly spinning with the direction of the oncoming wind. Communicating and acting clearly on declared values and beliefs. Trusted by followers who know that their leader will support and stand behind them throughout the journey

In my coaching engagements with emerging leaders, I often discuss these critical aspects of leadership.  Once trust is established and the client is assured of the confidential nature of our conversations, it is not uncommon for some to show discomfort and hesitation.  In these cases, the leader is usually attracted to certain aspects of the next role such as the position power, rewards and recognition, or greater levels of freedom and independence.  As discussed before, these individuals are concerned that lack of enthusiasm and passion to progress in the next role will be viewed negatively by the organizations and that their careers will be affected.  Others, who are not equipped to lead, carry an entitlement mindset that assumes that credentials, time in position, and performance equate to advancement and promotion.  Some go as far as making future plans and financial commitments on this basis prior to being promoted.

Consequently, best in class organizations create specialized career tracks that reward and recognize high performance in technical areas without putting undue pressure on staff who are ill equipped to carry the mantle of senior leadership.

It is imperative that organizations cast their net wide in identifying and attracting genuine leaders internally and externally. True leadership does not reside in everyone.

Questions for on-line conversation:

  1. When you consider the next generation leaders in your organization, how do they fare relative to the DNA code leadership competencies listed above?
  2. What other critical leadership skills would you add to the list?  Remember to distinguish these  from technical and business acumen

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

3 Responses to The Case for Choosing Not to Lead

  1. stoshdwalsh says:

    Interesting article. I’d make the case that it makes more sense to aim what exists at the DNA level at different targets, as opposed to “unlearning and reprogramming,” which, in most cases, is a waste of both organizational resources and an individual’s time. This remains the unpopular view, however, which is why this comment of yours is spot on: “Consequently, best in class organizations create specialized career tracks that reward and recognize high performance in technical areas without putting undue pressure on staff who are ill equipped to carry the mantle of senior leadership.” The issue in many organizations is not that they lack sufficient leadership talent, but that they think they can train it in anyone. Regrettably, this fosters a mentality that all behavior can be learned, and neglects development of people in areas where they have the capacity to contribute most.

  2. JMS says:

    One must distinguish between “leading” and “managing”. I think the above encompasses many of the characteristics of good management, but what is needed first and foremost in Leadership is Vision, Strategy and an ability to Inspire…from which the above will flow. That is where Leadership will start and it is in the best practices of implementation of managing the plan that all else shall flow as described above.

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