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Why you need to avoid creating accidental leaders

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Reflect for a moment on why people get promoted to leadership positions; it is generally because they are good at what they do. But leadership is not about being a good accountant, lawyer, investment banker and the like. The mistake that many organisations make is moving people up through the organisation because of what they have achieved to date using their functional skills, experience and expertise. They then find themselves having to bring people in to help these ‘accidental leaders’ deal with what at times can seem like an overwhelming challenge – leading people.

Just dealing with the visibility and exposure that comes with being a leader can weigh very heavily on the shoulders of leaders. The expectations of their people and of themselves can be enormous, to the extent that they may secretly wonder if they are up to it. I’ve been told by a number of leaders when we are behind closed doors “I’m waiting to be found out” or “I’m wondering how I got to this position; I don’t feel comfortable in it”. Some people who find themselves in leadership positions may not actually want to be leaders!

In the legal profession, for example, I have come across people who have achieved senior partner status, that coveted ‘badge’ which signifies their worth to the firm as a lawyer and valued colleague, who have struggled with the added expectation that this means that they now have to step up to be leaders as well. They signed up to be lawyers, not leaders, and many of them are accidents just waiting to happen.

Top performance leadership

The problem for accidental leaders is that leadership can seem such a daunting challenge that they don’t know where to begin. I describe how leaders’ core responsibility is to oversee the delivery of top performance that is sustainable. There are three core stages that must be followed as a top performance leader; (i) start with perfect clarity on the performance aspired to and when, (ii) define and create the environment that will deliver the performance and in which people can thrive, and then (iii) lead accordingly.

Worryingly, the TPC survey shows that many leaders are woefully lacking in the basics required to be a top performance leader.

Nearly 70 per cent of the employees surveyed said their leader does not provide a clear picture of what top performance looks like. Two thirds of them said their leader does not plan how to deliver top performance that is sustainable. This is especially concerning because this is the very starting point! More than a third said their leader fails to create an environment where they and their colleagues can perform at their best.

This data suggests that too many organisations are getting it horribly wrong in identifying and developing their leaders.

The need for real leaders

To achieve top performance, organisations should appoint and develop leaders who are driven by the appropriate ‘motives’ to lead.

Again, the TPC survey reveals some disturbing findings:

  • Half of the employees surveyed said their leaders ‘play it safe’;
  • More than half say their leaders encourage conformity to tried and tested methods rather than challenging accepted ways of doing things;
  • Two thirds said their leader does not make the necessary changes when top performance is not being delivered; and
  • Nearly 40 per cent said their leaders are slow, or fail, to address underperformance.

What is needed are real leaders who innovate, challenge behaviours that are unproductive, make those decisions that might be unpopular but are the ‘right’ things to do, and tackle the hard issues and confront them head on. These are the leaders who make a real difference in ensuring top performance that is sustainable.

So, what should you be doing to ensure you’re not creating ‘accidental leaders’ in your business?

Accidental leaders pose a real danger to organisations. Here are three ways you can ensure you’re not creating them in your business:

1. Stop promoting people to leadership positions because they are good at what they do. 

Experience working in elite sport has taught me how the best football players, swimmers and rugby players, for example, seldom become great coaches. The best coaches I have worked with have not excelled in what they are coaching, and this is the case at the very highest level.

2. Put people in leadership positions who have the right ‘motives’ to be leaders

Safe leaders will stifle your business; real leaders will energise and drive it forward.

3. Develop your leaders so that they:

  • Are crystal clear about the performance they expect from their people;
  • Create the conditions in which their people can thrive; and
  • Have the adaptability and flexibility to lead the delivery of sustainable top performance.

Professor Graham Jones is the Managing Director of Top Performance Consulting Ltd. His latest book, ‘Top Performance Leadership’, was published by How To Books in June 2014.

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