Putting the LEADER back into New Zealand Leadership

Leading in the Imagination Age

Putting the LEADER back into New Zealand Leadership

Over the years whenever we ask people about leaders they admire and why, we get the usual suspects; Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson, Richie McCaw, Steve Jobs, or references to personal leaders or mentors that they have worked with.  Repeatedly, they bring up traits like courage, authenticity, respect for others, humility, being trustworthy, being calm under pressure (how they make others FEEL) and then when prompted, go on to mention skills and behaviours such as visioning, influencing, communication skills, decision making etc. (what leaders DO). It seems as Kiwis we have an instinctive understanding of what a good New Zealand leader is and does, and can recognise it when we see it.

Given that, why does so much New Zealand leadership development still focus primarily on techniques and skills?

There is no question that being a leader in today’s volatile and changing work context is challenging.  Even allowing for that, the evidence is clear from study after study that leadership today leaves much to be desired.

Without putting the LEADER back into leadership development, we are in danger of teaching leadership techniques without a strong foundation that may even make things worse. People don’t necessarily buy into leadership techniques; they buy into the leader.

For every extraordinary leader who is visionary, open, collaborative and courageous, there are other “leaders” operating on autopilot; chasing the immediate dollar, stressed, borderline unethical or worse – functioning from a place of complete threat and ego.

If there is some truth in that assertion then you might ask, why is that happening? If as human beings we instinctively know and understand what good leadership is, why do too many leaders seem to be so determined to do the opposite?

Is it willful ignorance, a lack of self-awareness, poor role models or a need for status and ego at play?

It could be due to a number of these factors; however, from our leadership development practice, we think the answer is clear. It’s down to poor thinking.

It’s poor thinking that drives the wrong behaviours and its poor thinking that drives poor decision making. A statement of the xxxxx obvious you might say – but bear with us!

Here is an example: whenever in our leadership development practice we use psychometrics on larger groups of leaders to help them work on their personal development plans, we generally find that 25% to 35% are exhibiting some levels of anxiety at work (these percentages are in line with what other global studies report).

The stated causes are also the usual suspects; workload, uncertainty, job insecurity, poor relationships with line manager, stuff happening at home, etc… People report working longer hours, not being able to switch off, not sleeping well and often there are consequences in relationships and personal health issues starting to manifest too.

If this is indicative of the reality for many of our leaders, is it surprising that our thinking might be being affected by our work environment? How many of those leaders that may not be exhibiting anxiety are working at an optimum level?

We know from neuroscience and psychological studies that when our brain is constantly tired, we can become fearful and anxious; we often make bad decisions and can struggle to control our emotions. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise then with the many leaders walking around in this state today, that many poor decisions with serious consequences are being made.

Many of today’s challenges are both complex and volatile (a stretch for our brains) and many of today’s busy and uncertain work environments (a threat for our brains) are frankly, not optimal for human beings to operate in.



leadership trends

… but we need to do a lot of leadership development differently.

For years, the focus of how to change the culture of an organisation and develop its leaders has been about reshaping peoples’ behaviours – based on psychological and cognitive frameworks that only consider the outward display of a person’s behaviour – with the expectation that the organisation would transform.

We still have a global leadership shortage and we are still failing more often than succeeding with organisational change. Effective leaders help organisations be more adaptive and flexible.

It is not just about teaching skills and providing tools and frameworks. All of these things can be helpful but for maximum impact, they should be provided in the context of self-aware, growth mindset leaders, who understand their purpose and role and are motivated to lead, grow and learn. In our opinion, developing your personal leadership is the key to success in this new global innovation economy.

So, what does developing personal leadership mean practically? It’s starting to work with the leader’s thinking and decision making. We call this developing a leader’s mindset.

The Leader

These days, in leading edge companies, each person leads the group around them through personal power, less defined by location or hierarchy but rather by the influence of their idea.

Leaders today need to be okay with being vulnerable in the face of not knowing, as it is from this place that new ideas emerge. You can only be resourceful and resilient if you are operating from a place of well-being. To nourish the brain to cope in today’s Imagination Age (as coined by Silvia Damiano) means to nourish the individual and the body.

The ‘work face’ we have created for ourselves (suppressing parts of who we are) has resulted in massive depression, anxiety, and addictions. It has created cultures which have shunned emotion and that struggle to engage the hearts and minds of their sleep-deprived people. If we are not flourishing mentally and physically, we resort to survival thinking – and then it’s a matter of fighting, fleeing or freezing to protect a very delicate ego.

It is important to develop the whole person; focus on how leaders need to be and not only what they need to do in order to maximise their potential and match their strengths and ambitions to organisational needs. This is the start of a new approach to maximising human performance at work; by educating leaders on how they can have strong mental and physical foundations and be able to bring the best of themselves to work.

Focusing on the leader is a great start, but to get impact in the world, the leader needs context.

The Context 

Many studies have demonstrated that when people are able to contribute to something bigger than themselves, it activates inherent leadership capabilities and allows people to experience leadership in action. According to Korn Ferry in Real World Leadership, context is critical. Focusing attention on real business objectives, culture, challenges, and opportunities provides the context to allow leadership development to be transformational and to deliver measurable ROI.

And in case you hadn’t noticed, the work context is changing beneath our feet; digital disruption, globalisation, changes in employees’ attitudes to work… a lot of our theories about how work and organisations operate are under attack or seen as increasingly irrelevant.

If you think about it, the leadership model we needed for most of the last century, the Industrial Age, was based on a manager who had control of physical assets and equity and could leverage this to gain the most return through efficiency, repetition, scale, and scope. This leadership model was based on top-down directive autocracy.

With the arrival of the Information Age, leadership changed from managerial to visionary – the one with the most knowledge and the most compelling picture of the future could rise to the top. We extolled many leaders in the 1990s and rewarded them with more share options.

And then before you could blink an eye, things changed and companies like Uber, PayPal, Tesla, and Airbnb arrived, doing things in completely different and unexpected ways.

So, whilst control of physical assets and access to information are helpful to a successful strategy, they are no longer sufficient to create value sustainably.

A third element is required – creativity. This requires organisations to be nimble, courageous and forgiving. In these organisations, anyone can be and must be a leader.

Teams and companies now come together from all over the world, coordinating virtually to accomplish things not dreamed of 10 years ago. They disband just as quickly to reform elsewhere for another project.

This calls for a different sort of leadership where leaders bring their best selves to work and know how to leverage their skills to support those around them. It is also based on deploying the talents and thinking of others through meaningful collaboration to foster innovation and creativity. It is fundamentally about achieving higher sustainable results with others.

 Humanising Leadership Competencies 

In leadership development in the Information Age, we began to teach more than the requisite management skills of delegating, project management, resource allocation, financial management, multi-tasking and how to run effective team meetings. Afterwards came conversations and coaching. 360 feedback tools became the weapon of choice to ‘open our minds’ as to how we were being seen by others. We also realised that humans were emotional beings at home AND at work! It wasn’t all about IQ. Self-managing teams were leading edge thinking.

The trouble was that most of these tools and techniques were theories ‘band aided’ over the continued leadership model of command and control. How many of us these days want to be commanded or controlled?

Our leadership models need updating and neuroscience is starting to inform us how we can operate optimally at work and support that in others.

Imagine expecting a great athlete to go through a training regime and at the same time, they ate poorly, smoked, drank and had late night; we wouldn’t. So why do we not treat our leaders – assuming we want them to be great – in the same way as we treat great athletes or musicians?

In order to learn and apply any content, we are reliant on a healthy brain system.

Putting the LEADER back at the heart of things starts to change your perspectives and transform what leadership competencies are important. Take a look at the Future-Fit i4 Neuroleader model from the About My Brain Institute:

The i4 Competencies:

  • Performance– this is not about KPIs but rather about personal performance. It is about integrating body and mind to function optimally. It is about balance, ethics and mental readiness.
  • Collaboration– is about inspiring others, communicating well, being generous and courageous.
  • Innovation– is about being able to access your imagination, being curious and open, with the drive and enthusiasm to follow through on new ideas.
  • Agility– involves using your intuition and awareness to quickly read situations and to be able to adapt and influence.

Without the platform of an integrated, balanced, ethical and mentally ready self, no other leadership development behaviours can be changed sustainably.

Relating leadership development to the iceberg model, we need to focus on ALL areas, not only the tip of the iceberg as has been done so often in the past (content). We must look at the whole leader and what goes on beneath the surface, and then look even beyond the iceberg and at the environment around it (context).

Leadership development needs to focus on the brain and body of leaders as they are 24 hours per day, 365 days a year. It needs to go far beyond the mindfulness movements that are currently taking our fancy. To build mindfulness on a brain that lacks self-awareness and self-control, always ‘on’ (technology), too little sleep, a bad diet and lack of exercise is largely futile.

As Marshall Goldsmith says – ‘What got us here won’t get us there!’ Leadership development is an ongoing process towards mastery.

It is not a one-off training programme or an initiative. It requires continued practice and learning which can be chunked down to match the current context.

Someone once said that “the best leaders always consider themselves to be a work in progress” To be the best Future-Fit leaders we can (and before we start trying to lead others) we need to start with leading ourselves.