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Leadership in 2023 and Beyond

Everything rises and falls on leadership - John Maxwell. I first heard John quote that phrase when I was a young(er) person, captivated by it but didn’t quite fully understand what it meant. 20 years later, I was at the John Maxwell Leadership Centre in Atlanta - in the Boardroom was the exact same phrase. This time, I had a slightly better understanding and appreciation of what it meant.

While the world is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, Prime Ministers and royalties have come and gone, corporations and nations have been at odds with one another, while others are still living under strict lockdown conditions. To add weight to the burden, economic analysts say nations (Malaysia is one of them) are heading into more challenging times in the days ahead. More recently, the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar received mixed responses from players and officials alike; and who can forget the time when inked fingers appeared on our social media feeds and the days ensuing.

The narrative is changing by the day. It is as if the script writer can’t make up his/her mind about where and how the story should go. With all the uncertainties and unknowns, one thing is certain - Everything rises and falls on leadership.

In 2020, I wrote about the Leadership PATCH (leaders who are purposeful, authentic, trustworthy, compassionate and humble) and in 2021, the Leadership FOCUS (leaders with fervency, being open-handed and committed, with undivided attention and a servant-heart). As we anticipate the 365 days of 2023 (I was going to say sail into 2023, but obviously not!), leaders must possess the Leadership GRIT (leaders must grow, be resilient, be intentional and build trust).

1. Leaders must grow

Leaders must first grow. The sequence is important. Leaders must first grow themselves, before they can help others grow, and eventually help organisations grow.

Leaders must first grow.

In the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John Maxwell explains how leaders are the lid to the people and the organisations they lead - he calls this, the Law of the Lid. If we were to arbitrarily measure leadership and say the leader is at a level 5, the highest level the people or organisation they lead will be a level 4. But if the leader grows himself/herself to say, a level 7, the people and organisations they lead can now potentially move up to level 6.

Growth is a byproduct.

Growth is a byproduct. A byproduct is a product / result of something. Cambridge dictionary defines it as something that is produced as a result of making something else, or something unexpected that happens as a result of something. In other words, you can’t just grow without doing anything.

For example, if you put in effort, time and attention to study, you should have decent grades (byproduct). If you eat healthy, live a healthy lifestyle, do some form of exercise, you should have a healthy body. Likewise, if a leader invests time, effort and energy in reading (relevant and helpful materials), it can broaden their leadership thinking and expand their perspective on leadership matters. In these examples, you can see a series of actions before the outcomes / results can be seen. This is called discipline - a series of continuous actions in and of itself means very little, but when you do it consistently over time, it becomes impactful. Here are 3 leadership disciplines every leader must have if they want to grow:

  • Reading - reading (including watching and listening) is about broadening our horizon. Read varied topics across disciplines and industries. Why is this important? Because reading opens our mind. It introduces new possibilities and scenarios that we typically do not encounter. Reading brings us closer to issues and creates awareness. Reading allows us to connect with people and a true leader knows leadership is all about people.

  • Reflecting - reflecting is about thinking. Thinking enables a growth mindset to see and explore possibilities. Reflecting draws our attention and turns our focus on careful observations. It separates the whitenoise and brings clarity to the subject. It causes us to think and be mindful. And a true leader knows being mindful is a key leadership skill in our VUCA world today.

  • Responding - responding is about application. How can I apply what I have learned? You can have all the knowledge and experience in the world, but if you do not apply it, it is of little or no use to you as a leader. A leader creates impact by moving into action after reading and reflecting. Afterall, a true leader knows all talk and no action leads to nothing.

2. Leaders must be resilient

To be resilient is to be able to not just withstand the challenges but also (and more importantly) learn (and grow) from it.

In ancient times, when the soldiers went to war, they put on armour. The armour would consist of different parts (e.g. breastplate, helmet, belt etc.), each with a specific focus area to protect. The armour allows the soldiers to withstand the attacks of their enemies thereby preserving their own lives and enabling them to continue engaging in battle. That armour has evolved over time. The modern day armour still serves the same purpose - it is now more nimble, new materials enable soldiers to be more agile and responsive, and most importantly, lighter and quicker in their reflex.

Leaders, like the soldier, require “armour” to be resilient. This “armour” protects the leader from the various challenges thrown at them. In the Leadership PATCH, we looked at how leaders must be purposeful (in their purpose, values and vision). When leaders are purposeful, it allows them to be resilient. This is because to be resilient, you need to depend on something - there must be an anchor that gives you firm footing and a foundation to withstand the challenges. Purposeful leaders are resilient because they are secure in who they are and their security is found in their purpose, values and vision.

Resilience is more than just being able to withstand adversity.

Resilience is more than just being able to withstand adversity - it is also about learning and growing from it. Carol Dweck describes the growth mindset as someone who embraces challenges and persists in the face of setbacks. To do that, leaders must have humility. Humility enables leaders to grow from adversity. Without it, it is impossible for leaders to be resilient.

3. Leaders must be intentional

At the recent Purposeful Leadership Series that Invigorate ran for a banking client, I shared with participants three key principles at the start of the programme - one of them being, learning is not automatic, we have to be intentional about it.

Growth does not come automatically. Just because you worked a couple of years, went to school / university / attended an MBA programme does not mean you are growing.

On the other hand, growth can be automatic. When there is a series of intentional applied actions, growth can be automatic. A horticulturist who takes time to simulate the right temperatures and soil conditions, the plants will grow automatically. Or parents who nurture and feed nutritious meals, their kids will grow automatically.

When leaders are intentional about the ABC’s, things can automatically happen:

  • Attitude - attitude is about the positive posture of the leader. Leaders must intentionally maintain a positive attitude. Especially during difficult and challenging times, the attitude of the leader can determine his/her altitude - that is why some leaders strive in victory while others strife in failure. When a leader maintains a positive attitude, it automatically rubs off to the people they lead. If you want to know what kind of leader is in the organisation, just look at the people they lead.

  • Behaviour - behaviour is about walking the talk. Leaders are role models. They may not have volunteered themselves or even think they are role models, but the reality is that people are looking at every move they make (or don’t make). Leaders must quickly realise this and be intentional about their behaviour. For example, when a leader makes a mistake - be quick to own up to it, apologise, make the effort to remedy the situation and commit to not repeating the same mistake again. When leaders are intentional about their behaviour, the people around them will automatically model the same behaviour.

  • Coaching - coaching is about helping others become a better version of themselves. There is a time to direct / manage / instruct, and there is a time to coach. The former can rectify and produce quick fixes, but the latter has the potential to transform an average performer to an outstanding performer. When leaders are intentional about coaching, leadership bench strength grows automatically. That is why coaching is never about a certificate (programme) but a culture. I cringe when organisations rely on the number of certified coaches in their organisation as a reflection of a coaching (and development) culture. That does not preclude the value of coaching certification but the emphasis must be on creating a healthy environment where people are open to give and receive feedback, constantly looking for growth opportunities, knowledge and experience sharing platforms, including developmental assignments that stretch people’s potential.

4. Leaders must build trust

Leaders understand trust is the invisible currency that is tangible. In the Speed of Trust, Covey describes the economic benefits of trust. He introduces the concept of trust tax (when trust goes down, the speed of doing business goes down and the cost of doing business goes up) and trust dividend (when trust goes up, the speed of doing business goes up and the cost of doing business goes down). He goes on to say, everything a leader does, he/she can do better with trust. And lastly, trust is a function of credibility and behaviour - it is a skill you can learn and get better.

Trust is earned and not demanded.

Trust as we all know, is earned and not demanded. It is given and not asked for. Leaders must be the first to extend trust. When a leader demonstrates trust, the team reciprocates. Using the model by Patrick Lencioni (5 Dysfunctions of a Team), when leaders build trust it creates an environment where healthy engagements can take place. With the high levels of engagement, people are willing to commit themselves and do not shy away from being accountable for the delivery. This all culminates in a focus on the collective results and outcomes.

Trust is an outcome. In our stakeholder relationship model, I share about the five steps needed to build effective stakeholder relationships. Beginning with knowing your stakeholders (and vice-versa), thereby allowing you to connect purpose, followed by demonstrating capabilities and building credibility and eventually establishing trust. Trust is the byproduct of a series of intentional actions. And when you have trust, you can now progress from coordinating and cooperating to collaborating (the intentional coming together of more than one party with the purpose of achieving a common outcome that they would have not been able to do on their own). Without trust, it is impossible for collaboration.

I believe the Leadership GRIT is what will carry us into and through 2023. Leaders who are growing, resilient, intentional and trusting - with that, we can have hope. Hope is something not yet seen, the evidence of what is to come. May we bring hope into 2023 as we sail through turbulent times. Remember - Tough times never last, but tough people (leaders) do - Robert H. Schuller.

Tough times never last, but tough people (leaders) do - Robert H. Schuller.

Article appeared in the Leader's Digest (a publication of the Leadership Institute of Sarawak Civil Service).


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