Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Six leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln

I finished two audiobooks with wonderful leadership teachings: “Team of Rivals” by Doris K. Goodwin and “Lincoln’s Melancholy” by Joshua W. Shenk

Both books provide excellent leadership lessons from one of the best US presidents: Abraham Lincoln. Since early childhood, Lincoln, the son of two uneducated farmers, demonstrated superior intellectual ability, in the rural area of New Salem, Illinois. Lincoln a self-educated person started his political and professional career in his early twenties. He became lawyer, and later in 1860 Lincoln was elected as the 16th US President. During his presidency (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln successfully managed one of the most difficult times in US history: the American civil war. He did so, preserving unity in the nation, and ending slavery.

Lincoln had an inclination to arts and poetry. He was a sensible man that suffered from melancholy. In his youth, Lincoln learned about his melancholic condition, later in his early adulthood he learned mechanisms to cope with his disease, and during his adulthood, he put those mechanisms in practice to manage not only his depressive moods, but the critical situation that was present in the country. Rather than a weakness, Lincoln’ melancholy harnessed his best human qualities and helped him become a great leader.

The six leadership lessons from Abraham Lincoln:

  1. Solid values and the genuine desire to improve conditions in the world.
    Lincoln was guided by solid values, his actions were ruled by what was correct to do, not by what he liked or disliked. His word and his reputation were his most important assets.

  2. Political savvy.
    Lincoln saw the “business case” for ending slavery. His views for ending slavery helped him won the US Presidency and the
    Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves from southern states and helped to put an end to the civil war.

  3. Ability to manage a group of high performers toward a single purpose.
    Lincoln integrated his government with the best people, even if they had different political views. Lincoln had superior empathy skills that allowed him to understand other’s point of view and engage them in a purposeful and meaningful agenda.

  4. Realism to see things as they were.
    Lincoln’s melancholy helped him to develop a sense of realism. He was exposed to constant personal suffering that gave him clarity to see things as they were, with no make up, and to be prepared for the worst.

  5. Ability to learn and renew.
    Lincoln was a self-educated person. Reading gave him important knowledge. Additionally, his melancholy helped him to learn mechanisms to manage his depressive moods and quickly recover from pain and frustration. People are frequently conditioned to avoid pain and frustration, but by doing that people also miss key learning. Rather than run from painful or uncomfortable situations, we have to learn from them --like Lincoln did with his melancholy.

  6. Courage to carry-out his agenda.
    Lincoln never feared for his personal safety. He knew that he had something important to achieve in his life. He made it, although he was shot in his last year of President.

Does leadership pay?
Yes, leadership pays, and history rewards true leaders.

A word of caution, leadership is not a comfortable state. Leadership is dangerous, because leadership stands for better conditions and frequently confronts status-quo. Leadership is not an easy solution either; leadership is a long-term objective. Leadership requires solid values, commitment, and courage.
The world needs true leaders. Leaders with ethical values, able to understand and put in practice the essence of democracy, leaders that commit to higher causes, and work to improve social, economic, political, and environmental conditions in the world.
What is the purpose of your life? Can you improve conditions in the world? What will be your legacy?

Listen to your inner voice and let the leader inside of you emerge!

Wolf, S.J.; Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Unabrigued (Audiobook); 2005.

Kearns G. D.; Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Simon & Schuster; Unabrigued (Audiobook), NY; 2005

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The leadership role in organizations: Improving organizational effectiveness and employee well-being

This research study uses the People Value Cycle to analyze leadership behaviors in organizations involved in transformational change processes. The study revealed that visionary, innovative, ethical, risk taking, and results oriented leadership improve organizational effectiveness and employee well-being.

Since ancient times, leaders have played a pivotal role helping individuals, groups and organizations to transform, and adapt to new conditions. With an increasingly faster pace of change in today’s business environment, there is a need for true leaders. The question here is, how to develop leadership?

The people value cycle

The people value cycle is an organizational development (OD) methodology composed of two dimensions: the organizational dimension and the employee dimension. The organizational dimension includes four phases to plan, renew, leverage, and reward talent. It is supported by dialogue and double-loop learning practices to enhance organizational learning, and promote continuous innovation and change. The employee dimension includes four phases to guide individuals in planning their work and career objectives, performing to deliver results, connect one’s work with key initiatives and network with stakeholders, and renew own skills, mental models and behaviors. The employee dimension is supported by leadership; an individual quest for depth, freedom and free will. The People Value Cycle sustains that organizations can not sustain a value-oriented culture without committed individuals that support this effort. At the same time, these individuals do not produce value without a value-oriented organization. The people value cycle has its full potential when both dimensions are combined and connected.

What is leadership?
The Oxford Dictionary provides the simplest definition of a leader “the person followed by others” (p.450), thus leadership implies the ability to influence others. Koestenbaum (1991) considers that leadership is an act of will “Leading requires changing not only the way you think and the way you act, but also the way you will. Leading is taking charge of your will –the innermost core of your humanity”. (p. 2). Furthermore, Koestenbaum considers that leadership has the strategic and the personal sides. “The strategic side may deal with leadership practices and behaviors, but the personal side deals with the free decisions that human beings make about values and how to treat one another and themselves” (p. 5). Goleman (1995) considers that leadership requires the ability to persuade, not dominate others “Leadership is not domination, but the art of persuading people to work toward a common goal” (p.149 ).

Bennis and Nannus (1985) consider that leaders must establish a deep relationship with the group, to identify and represent the group’s interests “It is collective, there is a symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers, and what makes it collective is the subtle interplay between the followers’ needs and wants and the leader’s capacity to understand, one way or another, this collective aspirations…Leadership can move followers to higher degrees of consciousness, such as liberty, freedom, justice and self actualization” (p. 202-203). The authors made a clear difference between leadership and management, for them management means to be in charge of something, to have the responsibility, while leadership is the ability to influence others, to guide them in a defined course, direction, or action. Other authors present different perspectives that challenge the traditional mental models of leadership, Greenleaf (1996) for example, introduced the concept of leader as a servant “The servant leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first”. (p.13). Furthermore, Block (1993, 1996) introduces an interesting and alternative concept: Stewardship, where he challenges traditional lines of command and control, organizational structures and the distribution of power. He proposes a new order fostering democracy, service, responsibility and partnership. “Stewardship holds the possibility of shifting our expectations of people in power. Part of the meaning of Stewardship is to hold in trust the well being of some larger entity –our organization, our community, the earth itself”. (p. 41)

What are the necessary attributes of a leader?
Koestenbaum considers that a leader is a combination of competence and authenticity. Competence is the level of mastery in the job, a person that achieves superior results, and authenticity is a person with character, someone who can be trusted. A common ability identified by all authors on effective leaders is the ability to influence others, in this regard, Schein considers that leaders make a big influence in their groups “In growing organizations leaders externalize their own assumptions and embed them gradually and consistently in the mission, goals, structures, and working procedures of the group” (p. 375). One important attribute of leaders is their capacity to learn, to adapt and make a difference. What is learning?, and most important, how can we use learning to develop our leadership skills? Marquardt & Reynolds (1994) consider that “Learning is generally defined as a process by which individuals gain new knowledge and insights to change their behavior and actions. It is traditionally divided into the cognitive (intellectual), affective (emotional) and Psychomotor (physical) domains” (p. 35).

Data collection
This leadership research project included a web-based survey, and the analysis of company-related information. A sample of seven employees completed the web-based survey --four middle-level leaders and three senior-level leaders. The survey questionnaire included nine appreciative inquiry (AI) questions to identify the leadership behaviors required to instigate planned-change interventions that improve organizational effectiveness and employee well-being. I decided to use AI because I see leadership as a major goal, as an ideal for everybody. Frequently, in research projects, we use a deficit approach method to identify gaps. I disagree with this approach when analyzing leadership, because leadership presents endless opportunities. Measuring leadership would limit its opportunities, therefore I decided to identify key leadership characteristics and behaviors. French and Bell (1999) mention the four principles of AI on organizations: “research should begin with appreciation, should be applicable, should be provocative, and should be collaborative” (p. 139).

The organizational dimension
Effective leaders develop plans that support organizational business priorities and objectives. Survey responses revealed three leadership behaviors required to effectively plan, even on unpredictable circumstances: business savvy, good listening skills, and the ability to build strong teams.
Leaders must create a positive environment to allow others to learn, experiment, and take risks. Survey responses evidenced the need for leaders to alter the organizational culture, and reinforce continuous change and renewal. Survey participants considered the following behaviors paramount: coaching and mentoring, building trust, empowering others, and providing continuous feedback.
Survey respondents reinforced the importance to partner and leverage business strategies, and bridge boundaries to bring multiple parties together. The leadership characteristics required to effectively leverage business strategies are: flexibility, openness, listening skills, and the ability to build networks.
Survey responses revealed that competent leaders appreciate their staff, noticing those moments when someone is acting at his/her best, and recognizing accordingly. The leadership characteristics that promote these behaviors are those associated with the characteristics of servant leadership: humility, empathy, fairness, impartiality, and providing opportunities to tackle new challenges.

The employee dimension
Survey responses evidenced the importance for leaders to develop a shared vision of the future. This requires the ability to truly listen to the ideas of others without judging, criticizing or attacking these ideas, asking "soul-searching" questions, and leveraging on others' views. Planning is a team game, not an individual activity.
Survey results revealed the importance to develop innovative and thorough solutions for today’s complex problems. Main leadership behaviors described to effectively perform are the following: commitment to results, thinking out of the box, while developing a pragmatic, analytical and rational mindset (innovative and realistic at the same time!), taking into account both technical aspects, and group and organizational processes.
Survey respondents evidenced the need to build and maintain effective networks. Respondents mentioned the following leadership behaviors: empathy, humility, expressing disagreements tactfully, and, valuing and allowing others to contribute (everyone analyzes, everyone considers ways to improve, streamline, reduce costs, etc.).
Survey respondents evidenced the need for continuous change and renewal. They consider that leaders build bridges for the future. Respondents imagined a positive work environment with true collaboration, continuous learning, and new opportunities for everyone.

Additionally, survey respondents were asked to identify what three things they would do to heighten the overall health and vitality of their organization. The responses? Orientation to results, more delegation and empowerment, continuous learning and growth, and a more ethical and social responsible culture.

After reading these behaviors you may ask, why these behaviors and not others? -- the same question I have, however, I find these behaviors useful. Do you want to build up on your strengths? Try Koestenbaum's formula to develop leadership: competence plus authenticity (you have to be very good in what you do, and a human being with strenghts, weaknesses, and a unique personality!).

Do you have another formula? Please, share it with us. The business world is looking for true leaders!

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