Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Leadership Mojo

I’ve been studying leadership for more years than I care to remember and I’d like to make a few observations that are not mainstream. Firstly, the literature is full of words that describe the attributes that leaders are supposed to have. In fact, as a doctoral student of mine once revealed, there are pages and pages of them: he called them ‘weasel word’s. Another observation is that hardly anyone talks about bad or mediocre leaders, just leaders and the odd person that really stands out as wonderful. Sure Hitler was a bad person but he was a powerful charismatic leader: it is not that kind of bad I am referring to but the bad as in incompetent.

Most of the characteristics or behaviours applied to leadership appear, in my view, to be those things that are essential for successfully negotiating life without difficulty in most endeavours involving people, and that includes intimate relationships. These behaviours are: trust; the ability to learn; being a team player; self-reliance; self-control; self-awareness; self-actualisation; the ability to converse; managing change; empathy; assertiveness; flexibility; being positive towards others; optimism; relationship skills; and self-confidence. Then there are some personality characteristics that are specific to certain situations and affect personal effectiveness.

I think that anyone who manages life well or easily will, to a greater or lesser extent, exhibit these behaviours. And anyone who wants to be a good leader needs these attributes as a minimum set of competencies. Bad leaders don’t do these things well and mediocre leaders are, well, mediocre. Some people really find these skills difficult to learn and there are those that probably can’t learn them.

The additional attribute, to my way of thinking, that a good leader needs to possess, has to do with the ability to motivate others. Motivation is always mentioned as a leadership attribute, buried in the list with all the others, so I know that this is not something new to you.

But I think it is the leadership mojo: the thing that makes the difference. Great leaders know how to motivate people and expend a great deal of energy doing it. Sometimes there are good leaders who are brilliant motivators when they are flawed in some of the essentials mentioned above.

Neuroscience and biology tell us that predicting what motivates others and being able to get on with them based on that understanding is a critical survival skill. It enables us to relate and to work as teams. However, in some people this ability appears to be better developed in some than others and these people make leaders.

Motivation in leadership consists of a number of factors such as providing purpose, enabling people to do what they do well and leaving them to it (autonomy), being participative and democratic, providing people with the necessary skills to perform their work, and providing intrinsic as well as extrinsic rewards. While fear is a poor motivator a lot of people need to be accepted by leaders and seek approval, and will respond when there is a risk of disapproval. Others are less dependent and are self-motivated. Thus good leaders respond to individual motivators.

Successful leaders know how to motivate. Whether the mojo is able to be learned or not is an interesting question. Being born with the charismatic gene certainly helps.