Good economic climates hide many flaws in organisations, and poor leadership and inept leaders often go unnoticed in those favourable times.

But things are very different when times are tough. Leaders have never been more visible or exposed than during the recent dramatic difficulties facing the business world. This is when outstanding leadership is so crucial; of course, it also just happens to be when outstanding leadership is so very difficult to deliver! Employees need and want to be able to trust their leaders so that being open and letting them know how things stand is paramount. Recognising that an inevitable part of change is that there will be a fair amount of doom and gloom among their people is also important because leaders will need to help them deal with it. Listening to their concerns and reminding them of the successes always has to be at the forefront of the leader’s mind. But leaders must also continue to focus on a strategy for moving forward and keeping their people focused on delivering quality service and products to their customers.

So Why Would Anyone Want To Be A Leader?
I have deliberately painted a dark side of leadership to emphasise just how demanding it is to do it well. This is why the underlying motives to be a leader are so important.

My experience of coaching numerous senior leaders has led to my realisation that there are two broad sets of motives for being a leader that drive different behaviours and lead to different impacts on organisations. I have consequently identified two types of leader which I call ‘real’ and ‘safe’.

Real and Safe Leaders
At the extreme, safe leaders are driven so much by their needs for rewards, status and power that they are unwilling to put themselves on the line because of the threat of losing their position if they get it wrong. Safe leaders keep their heads out of the firing line, they are risk-averse, and will sit tight in the hope that more favourable conditions are just around the corner. There is little or no innovation and challenging orthodoxy during their tenure since their focus is almost exclusively on micro-managing the short term, particularly around things like achieving this week’s numbers. In tough times, their focus is on cutting costs and probably putting a halt to development activities like coaching.

Real leaders, on the other hand, are driven much more by the challenge and opportunity to put themselves out there and make a difference; this is what leadership is about for them. Real leaders become more prominent in tough times; they are highly visible and make things happen. Sure, they have to focus on and manage the short-term challenges, but their mind is more on investing for the future. Real leaders view the current difficulties as being a time when development is most needed; this is the time to nurture and retain talent in order to gain competitive advantage in the longer term.

How Do You Spot Real and Safe Leaders?

The differences between real and safe leaders are particularly pronounced during turbulent times for organisations. What lies at the core of the safe leader will mainly be about role security. This leader really values the prestige, status, power, authority and the financial package that comes with leadership. There is a lot to lose for this leader, so much so that, particularly in tough times, his or her main focus will be staying out of the firing line and becoming even more risk-averse; not taking risks, to them, means ensuring no mistakes. They withdraw into a safety zone. Now is the time to avoid conflict and it becomes too risky to challenge peers’ or bosses’ views.

At the other end of this continuum is the real leader. These leaders are driven mainly by the challenge and to put themselves out there, make a difference and have a real impact. They focus on what they can control and make things happen. Real leaders make and stand by their decisions and ‘tell it how it is’. They view tough economic climates as being a time when development is most needed; this is the time to nurture and retain talent in order to gain competitive advantage in the longer-term. Their skills are probably even more prominent as they strive to lead the organisation and support their people through turbulent, times. This is where their personal resources are so important, to the extent that they are highly visible to their people. Their resilience, optimism balanced with realism, strength of character, care and determination will be very evident. But so, too, will the fact that they are human beings like everyone else. They also have doubts and worries and there is no point hiding them. Real leaders are authentic and their impact in organisations is much more a function of how they are than what they do.

So How Do You Create a Real Leadership Culture?
Real leaders hold the key to the future health of all organisations. Yet, too often, organisations allow safe leaders to perpetuate the status quo and hinder progress and innovation. For example, despite knowing better, organisations still make the mistake of promoting people to leadership positions based on criteria related almost exclusively to functional expertise rather than leadership capability. These people are rewarded for being good as a functional manager and the safer option when they find themselves with the difficult challenge of leading people is to bury themselves in micro-management. Organisations should, instead, place greater emphasis on identifying a real leadership mindset when assessing leadership potential. This will ensure that future leaders’ motives have people at their core, and also that they possess a strong capability to deal with the pressures that accompany the role. .

Organisations can also move towards a real leadership culture by emphasising and make a big show of rewarding innovation instead of merely paying lip-service to it. They should create environments which encourage calculated risks and tolerate responsible mistakes if they are to embrace true innovation.

Challenging Safe Leaders and Supporting Real Leaders
The essence of creating a real leadership culture lies in supporting those leaders who strive to spend most of their time at the real end of the continuum, and challenging those who are stuck or at the safe end.

Challenging safe leaders is difficult! They are likely to exhibit classic symptoms of either ‘denial’ (“Leave me alone to be the good leader I already am”) or ‘resistance’ (“I’m far too busy to attend that leadership programme”).

Here are a few ideas on how to challenge these safe leaders:

  •   Get them to create and communicate visions to their teams. This will ensure they are proactive in focusing on the future and, by going public on it with their team, become visible and ‘own’ it.
  • Ensure they receive impactful developmental feedback on a regular basis rather than once a year during performance reviews. Safe leaders do not want feedback, or are quick to dismiss any they receive that they don’t like. So find a way of ensuring they do receive 360 degree feedback on their leadership that makes an impact and will compel them to action.
  • Provide them with a challenging coach who has permission to push them outside the boundaries of their safety zone; encouraging risk-talking, making the tough decisions they’ve been avoiding and getting them to think beyond what they believe has worked in the past.
  • Help them set goals that will drive their day-to-day leadership behaviours rather than the annual review goals that get lost and forgotten for twelve months. These should be in the form of process goals around ‘how to be’ as opposed to ‘what to do’ as a leader.

Supporting real leaders is equally difficult because it provides a different type of challenge. These leaders want to explore and experiment as part of their continuous growth. They want to be stretched and feel constantly at the cutting edge of leadership.

Here are a few ideas on how to support real leaders:

  • Provide them with access to the latest thinking on leadership. Send them to thought leadership conferences and seminars where they can feed off like-minded leaders from other organisations.
  • Find ways of providing them with a voice in the organisation by facilitating access to the most senior leaders in the organisation. They want to share their innovative views and ideas with their bosses. They are also keen to provide feedback on what is and what is not working.
  • Real leaders are hungry for feedback so ensure that processes are in place outside the formal performance reviews.
  • Provide access to a coach who can help them with their feelings of loneliness and isolation; their high visibility means they will experience these feelings from time to time. The coach should also support their development of mental toughness to enable these leaders to thrive on the pressure.
  • Provide them with a mentor who they can bounce ideas off and keep them stimulated.

The future health of organisations has never been more important than right now. Large organisations that have previously seemed untouchable in any economic conditions are struggling to survive. Real leaders hold the key to all organisations’ well-being, whether measured in terms of bottom-line or in employee engagement. Allow safe leaders to continue to dominate your organisations at your peril!

Professor Graham Jones, Founder, Top Performance Consulting Ltd
The company was founded by leading sports performance psychologist Professor Graham Jones. Graham’s experience of consulting with top level performers spans more than 20 years and includes working with Olympic and World Champions from a variety of sports, elite military fighting force personnel, and senior leaders and their teams in FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 companies.