Accenture recently surveyed 3,600 professionals from 30 countries. Participants were evenly distributed between men and women and across generations and their positions ranged from entry-level through management. One of the...
One wonders how all the high achieving thinkers ended up writing posts about leadership and all the dullards ended up in actual management roles. Only in our imperfect world could such a mismatch of talent occur.
If one reviews the multitudes of leadership posts, he or she discovers wisdom and clarity like nowhere else. All problems are addressed with answers usually provided in 2 pages or less. Many posts often include examples of how leaders have erred, made bad decisions, or incorrectly practiced the principle being proclaimed while few offer examples of how it is performed correctly. But the point is always the same: the answers are so simple. How can the dullards holding leadership positions be so inept?
In posted leadership articles, an interesting theme begins to develop. Writers dissect the various functions and tasks of the leader. They focus on one area and scrutinize it carefully. It’s like a leadership autopsy. The writer provides deep insights about one specific leadership task. In essence writers tell us more and more about less and less. Soon students of management will know everything about nothing!
Unfortunately, that is not the way a leader operates. Leaders work in a world of paradoxes and dichotomies. Multiple facets intersect so that a leader seldom, if ever, addresses one issue at a time. For example, consider a leader who must address a performance problem with an employee. The leader attempts to address and resolve the issue but he or she is also concerned with clarity and tone of communication; providing objective data around a clear description of the issue; ensuring future motivation and growth of the employee; as well as fairness of how this employee is treated. In addition the leader’s actions are colored by the leader’s personality, leadership style, past relationships with that employee as well as any other external pressures the leader is facing at that moment. The point is that to perform leadership well is a difficult and complex act. There is no cookie cutter approach. Leadership is an art. Just as an artist takes principles of design and color and then applies them in his or her unique way to develop a masterpiece (hopefully), so does the leader apply principles to meet the challenges of the role.
If one begins to consider the various dichotomies facing leaders, the complexity and nuances that leaders must manage begins to take shape. Consider this partial list of conflicting pressures.
A Critical And Often Invisible Core Leadership Skill
Each of these paradoxes is worthy of discussion but that is a topic for another day. It is the skill that enables leaders to address and integrate these dichotomies that is of interest. It is a fundamental leadership skill that often goes unnoticed, un-discussed and is often unappreciated. That skill is the ability to discern and simultaneously optimize seemingly conflicting issues. Great leaders do not divide and conquer. They attempt to position the organization and staff for success on multiple levels. Therefore a wise leader will always consider how to optimize a situation to appropriately position the organization and individuals for success.
What is Optimization?
Dictionary.com defines optimization in two ways:
1. To make as effective, perfect, or useful as possible.
2. To make the best of.
In the leadership world optimization is the ability to integrate two or more areas and create synergy so that both are enhanced and neither is diminished.
Why Is Optimization Critical?
Optimization is at the core of employee engagement, collaboration and innovation. It is the skill that allows leaders to avoid both the “either-or” and the “compromise” leadership styles. As such, it is a critical leadership skill that is seldom discussed but which is at the heart of the true great leaders.
The Optimization Process
In order to successfully perform the skill of optimization, the leader uses a five-step process. The speed through this process may be very long for data driven and complex situations or it may occur very quickly as the leader mentally goes through the thinking steps for simple actions.
Listed below are some principles and thoughts to consider at each step.
Recognize and Discern the Situation
First, the leader must be able to recognize the situation and the components that must be integrated. Perhaps this is the most important step since if the leader overlooks even one critical area the most sincere leader will underwhelm the situation. Broadening a leaders perspective so that the multiple dimensions can be recognized is a key component of the development of a leader. This is an area that is overlooked in most leadership development. It is also a skill that should be enhanced with maturity and experience and with the involvement of people in analyzing situations.
Second, the leader must define the criteria to be accomplished in that given situation. This requires ensuring that the end result is clarified and conditions of success are developed and even prioritized if needed. This is not a simple step. Because the leader is dealing with multiple dimensions, criteria must be established to ensure each dimensions is considered and addressed. Again this is an area where involvement of others assists in the thinking process. This is also how the leader guides solution development without specifying the “how”.
Third, the leader must define and consider options that will accomplish the criteria. These options may exist or they may have to be developed. In either case, options provide the leader choices in achieve the often-conflicting criteria. This may take brainstorming and often requires the involvement of others to frame options. This is where innovation and creativity develops alternatives to accomplish the design criteria set in step 2.
Note: In many instances, the first effort at this point is to define the obvious or convenient alternatives. This is a point where leaders must push themselves ad others to outside the box. This is a point where a leaders must be willing to tell those who are involved, “that is a good solution, but not a great one; go back and rethink a better way to achieve our criteria”.
After defining the options, leaders (and their groups of staff) will screen the options against the criteria. The purpose is to determine which option best meets the criteria to be achieved. Once the leader has an idea of which options are viable approaches then he or she will assess the risks for each action being contemplated. Every choice has risks and professional and complete staff work requires that risks be identified and assessed. Only in this way can the leader ensure that the decision is not putting the organization, employees or even the leader in an untenable situation.
Make A Choice
Fourth, the leader must make a choice. This is where leadership gets paid the big bucks because the lead must determine what is the best choice with the level of risk the leader and the organization are willing to accept. This is not a consensus decision.
Develop and Implement the Plan
Fifth and finally, the leader must ensure a plan is developed and implemented that will execute the choice that was made. Choices are worthless if they cannot or are not implemented. While the leader may delegate the execution of the concept, the high achieving leader oversees the process to progress is planned and made.
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