Sunday, February 2, 2014

What Are the Barriers to Becoming an Effective Leader?

In 2011 Anne Morriss, Robin Ely, and Frances Frei highlighted five barriers to becoming a truly effective leader.
The first barrier they highlight is overemphasising personal goals. True leadership is about making other people better as a result of your presence and making sure your impact endures in your absence. That doesn’t mean leaders are selfless. They have personal goals to build status, a professional identity, and a retirement plan, among other things. But the narrow pursuit of those goals can lead to self-protection and self-promotion, neither of which fosters other people’s success.
Making other people a priority is perhaps most challenging for emerging leaders—especially women and minorities, who may feel heightened pressure to protect their interests in a world that seems (and often is) rigged against them. When societal attitudes contain built-in questions about your competence, it takes a lot of energy to keep trying to prove those attitudes wrong.
As Anne Morriss and her colleagues mention - start with a commitment to make another person, or an entire team, better and then go back for the skills and resources to pull it off.
The second barrier is protecting your public image. Where Anne Morriss et al highlight how another common impediment to leadership is being overly distracted by your image, that ideal self, you’ve created in your mind. Sticking to the script that goes along with that image takes a lot of energy, leaving little left over for the real work of leadership.
There are more-nuanced costs as well. Once you’ve crafted your persona and determined not to veer from it, your effectiveness often suffers. The need to be seen as intelligent can inhibit learning and risk taking, for instance. The need to be seen as likable can keep you from asking tough questions or challenging existing norms. The need to be seen as decisive can cause you to shut down critical feedback loops.
The third barrier is turning ‘internally perceived’ competitors into enemies, where one particularly toxic behaviour is the act of turning those you don’t get along with into two-dimensional enemies. Distorting other people is a common response to conflict, but it carries significant leadership costs. It severs your links to reality, making you reliably incapable of exerting influence. As you turn others into caricatures, you risk becoming a caricature yourself.
The fourth barrier is going it alone, where most people opt out of leadership for perfectly good reasons. The road, by definition, is unsafe. It leads to change, not comfort.
The research by Anne Morriss and her team found that almost all effective leaders they researched had a strong team that helped provide perspective, grounding, and faith. Your team members can be family, colleagues, friends, mentors, spouses, partners. The litmus test: Does the leader in you regularly show up in their presence? Find the people who believe in your desire and ability to lead. Fall in love with them. Or at least meet them for drinks on a regular basis.
The fifth barrier is waiting for permission. Like risk aversion, patience can be a valuable evolutionary gift. It’s a main ingredient in discipline and hope. It helps us uncover the root cause of problems. But patience can be a curse for emerging leaders. It can undermine our potential by persuading us to keep our heads down and soldier on, waiting for someone to recognize our efforts and give us the proverbial tap on the shoulder, a better title and formal authority.
The problem with this approach is that healthy organisations reward people who decide on their own to lead. Power and influence are intimate companions, but their relationship isn’t the one we tend to imagine. More often than not, influence leads to power, not the other way around.
Again Anne Morriss’s research that most of the exceptional leaders they’d studied didn’t wait for formal authority to begin making changes. They may have ended up in a corner office, but their leadership started elsewhere. In one way or another, they all simply began to use whatever informal power they had.
These barriers are not rocket science – the art is to recognise them and to act on them. It’s easy to assume you’re not being restricted in your leadership capabilities until you find a list like this and you set aside the time to have a real honest look at what might be holding you back from being even better.
Morriss, A., Ely, R.J., and Frei, F.X. (2011). Managing Yourself: Stop Holding Yourself Back. Harvard Business Review, January.

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