“If we allow our thinking to stay within the confines of theories or models, these can actually end up being counter-productive. What organizations really need are leaders who can help them gain advantage by thinking differently”
“Uncommon leadership” is the new book by Phil Higson and Anthony Sturgess designed to encourage leaders to think differently to develop competitive advantage. The nature of leadership has changed dramatically over recent years. The rules of their role are challenged by frequent criticism brought to public eyes by social media, plus the messy reality of the workplace of the networked era.
With that premise, Anthony Sturgess and Phil Higson offer a fresh perspective on today’s leaders’ skills. They start by pointing out three critical issues:
• The importance of integrity – to address a loss of confidence in the motivations and actions of some leaders;
• The desirability of more shared leadership throughout the organisation – to reduce the damage caused by too much power being concentrated in the hands of too few people;
• The need for a more holistic view of leadership – to help to cope with the complexity of the business environment, and the growing importance of relationships between organisations.
Their thought-provoking insight goes on through the investigation of five key themes or competitive advantages, structured around a ‘5-S leadership framework’.
Seeing – finding the sense before it becomes common
The first element is seeing with vision, “seeing things that others don’t, can’t or won’t.” To do that, when the future is inherently unpredictable, sense-making becomes a crucial leadership skill. “If leaders are to find the sense before it becomes common sense, they need to be able to make sense.”
It suggests an on-going vigilance, continually scanning and searching the context we are in. It also includes looking for discontinuities and gaps. “And, do not be afraid of finding a big gap!” In fact, finding the sense before it becomes common involves testing ideas to see if they work, then adapting as we gain more awareness.
This is a powerful message. It alerts leaders to approach strategy in a whole new way, which considers a more realistic approach to emerging situations. Rather than relying on foresight and planning for accurate scenarios as it was widely used in the past, leaders are now pointed out to the importance of insight. It is about gaining clearer, deeper perceptions of any given situation, having a constant alertness and being more responsive and dynamic to what is going on.
But sense-making isn’t just an alone exercise. In the true spirit of social business, to be really effective, sense-making needs to be done with others too. “Other people may well have insights that can shed light onto the situation.” This requires meaningful conversations with people across the enterprise and even further afield.
The authors bring attention to the three foundations for holding sense-making conversations, namely:
• trust – listening to, respecting and acting on input from others;
• honesty – communicating in a way that enables others to make sense of your input;
• self-respect – integrating the above without losing your own self-belief.
Worth of note is also the suggestion of thinking differently before settling for compromises. Especially over important issues and seemingly irreconcilable ideas, we are often trapped by the “either/or” option. Instead, it is more effective and innovative to think “and”, finding a way to make it possible to do both. While doing this is not easy, finding what the authors define as the “tipping point” helps. This is the point at which something begins to change. At that point a number of small factors, a vital few things that matter, combine resulting in a significant change. “The vital few go by many names. Based on the Pareto Principle, perhaps it’s most commonly known as ‘the 80/20 rule.’ The basic premise is that, for many activities, the great majority of effects are generated from a small number of causes. This idea might not be new but it’s surprising how often it is overlooked by managers and leaders.”
Shaping – making good sense into common sense
“It is one thing to find the sense, but quite another to do something with it. Seeing sense only begins to make sense when others can see it too. For that to happen, leaders need to move beyond sense-making towards sense-giving.”
Seeing was about sense-making. The following step is about persuading, influencing and giving sense to the teams leaders lead.
I particularly like the idea of recalling Aristotle’s three ‘appeals’ of persuasion, which I am now going to steal with pride:
• An appeal to ‘ethos’ – the credibility of the person making the argument. How convinced are you by the person? How convincing are you to others? “We are far more likely to believe someone whom we think is credible, whom we like and respect.”
• An appeal to ‘logos’ – the use of logic to support a claim. Do the fact stack up?
• An appeal to ‘pathos’ – the emotional and motivational appeal. Does the argument appeal to the emotions? Language choice can affect people’s emotional response.
Sturgess and Higson, urge us to think that our way of making decisions is far more influenced by a complex range of feelings, emotions and subconscious stimuli than logic and rational thinking. What that means for leaders, is that an emotive and motivational appeal to ‘pathos’ is likely to have a bigger impact on persuading people than a logical argument. And when this is allied to ‘ethos’: “where the person making the appeal has high credibility, we find the most effective combination of all.”
But, like any form of communication, the act of persuasion is always a two-way process: for anyone to become respected, valued and trusted, they need to be understood. “And if you want to be better understood, you need first to understand others better.”
Showing – doing the common things uncommonly well
The third ‘S’ builds on the second. Once the uncommon sense around the right things to do to differentiate the business from others becomes common, the enterprise needs to excel at doing them. Key is to bring the insight to fruition by connecting the great ideas and practices to customers and opportunities.
But leaders also need to build a “strong sense of togetherness” within the organisation and help employees to fulfil their potential. So the final two ‘Ss’ are crucial to make the uncommon sense flourish.
Serving – having the common touch
It is about building trust and support within the company, but also making connections both inside and outside the enterprise. It requires the ability of being in touch with the feelings of people, noticing the small things that can make a big impact on colleagues and caring enough to do something about them.
The last ‘S’, should be required reading especially for leaders embarking on the social business journey:
Sharing – making uncommon leadership common
It is about harnessing the power of collaboration. “All too often we don’t realise the knowledge and potential within the teams or groups of people we have assembled. In many cases, we already have the insights and knowledge needed to solve problem, or identify innovative ways forward, within our organisations. But often that knowledge and expertise remains dormant or under-used.”
The commentary describes how the most critical skill today was the ability to share leadership both within and between organisations. An example of embedded, internal shared leadership could be when the teams themselves decide which member is the best person to lead at any given situation. The authors acknowledge that working well together through sharing leadership can take time, effort and persistence. Yet, they have no doubt that this is the future of successful enterprises. “There is an old African proverb which makes this point far better than we could: ‘If you want to go fast, walk alone. If you want to go far, walk together.’
Is it worth reading?
If there is something I have been seeing through all the people interviews and company case studies we publish at simply-communicate is that this new type of leadership is what differentiates the most progressive and networked organisations. As communicators there is much here that fits our own agenda of collaboration and transformation. Let’s hope the book encourage more leaders to make this way of working more common inside their business. This would act as a springboard for capitalising on new opportunities and delivering competitive advantage.