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Leadership at cruising speed

I take a deep breath when arriving in Montegualandro after a long trip by car. I gear down and start to climb the last hill. I smile and laugh inwardly. Imagine that I had to drive these 1.300 kilometers in an old car from the thirties, with only two gears! Its motor would have been overheated, we would have lost much time and my passengers would have been irritated… In one word: it would have been misery! Luckily, today’s cars are much better equipped.

And what about your ‘leadership equipment’? This question seems absurd, but I have already noticed that many executives are attached to one personal style, which even colors their private life. What is worse: mostly, they are not aware of the fact that people are making fun of their unilateral behavior. It seems as if they only have one or two gears!

Warren G. Bennis (University of Southern California) brilliantly summarizes leadership in a few words: ‘the capacity to engage people’. Good leaders ‘make people feel they're at the very heart of things, not at the periphery. They translate vision into reality’. However, this is only possible if you apply the right combination of leadership styles. Your timing is also crucial: when and to what extent do you apply a particular style?

This way, competent leaders can convince their people and change the course of their company. They manage to convince them and turn opposition into engagement. Their way of communicating has much more impact than a PowerPoint presentation in a meeting room. Don’t forget that if your people don’t support your strategy, you don’t have a strategy but merely a theory!

Nevertheless, I have bad news for those who are looking for a quick-win formula for the ideal ‘blend’ of leadership styles. According to the situation, you will have to apply other styles each time. Consequently, your mix will always look different, but it has to stay personal. Do you convince your boss and your children the same way? I hope not! After all, people are no computers and life is not an exact science!

Everything starts with good communication. A leader who can’t convince other people of his ideas, is useless. Charisma and enthusiasm are essential. Only when you can motivate your employees daily, you may hope to stay successful.

I also throw the following ingredients into the blender when I want to put my vision and strategy into action:
  1. Actively listening and learning;
  2. Organizing and orchestrating;
  3. Interactive networking through all levels, internal as well as external;
  4. Coaching and consulting;
  5. Delegating and following up projects;
  6. Engaging to a ‘call to action’.
As a leader, you must be able to give the right signal at the right moment. Your timing is crucial. When do I have to accelerate? Full speed? When do I have to gear down? Everything is about insight into human nature. I repeat myself when I say that EQ is at least as important as IQ…

Today, you are the coach who motivates his or her people; tomorrow, you will perhaps be a severe master who wants to make progress. Coaching versus being directive. Sometimes, you have to stimulate creativity in order to restrict bureaucracy. Sometimes, you have to stick to the rules to avoid chaos. Sometimes, you need to temper overconfidence. Sometimes, you have to encourage and to beat the opposition. Orchestrating versus coaching.

In a few words: you have to gear, gear down and gear up again in order to reach cruising speed. But don’t worry: practice makes perfect! Let us be honest: a gearbox is much easier to handle when it has been sufficiently ‘run in’. This is why a good ‘boss – master’ is very important. This is someone who helps you to learn from your experiences continuously.

Driving by using an automatic gearbox, is far too easy, but don’t coach people when sitting in your couch! Only strong teams having achieved the ‘self-directing’ level, manage to coach themselves sometimes. However, in this context, many are called, but few are chosen…

You need to apply these different styles. This is only possible when meaningful assignments are given to you, so that you can systematically build up some experience. Feedback and training are thus crucial. This is also the case for your relationship with your employees. Their training has to be a top priority for you. Limiting everything to one evaluation conversation a year is absolutely insufficient. Take some time to talk to your people each day. This is the first requirement! Think about this and do another Self-Test! How much time do you spend asking for feedback and giving it?


By Herman van Herterijck

"my ambition is to put the importance of pragmatic and continuous self-coaching on the agenda of current business leaders"

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