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Leadership is like lettuce … let’s turn over a new leaf

Leadership has never been in such high demand across commerce and industry. The need for it drives almost every interaction between talent professionals and the top tier of organisations in industries from agriculture to high tech and from major corporates to SOEs.

One response is to simplify the quest by turning leadership into a numbers game. Consult recent HR research or business publications and numbers dominate … the 10 traits of inspirational leaders, the six key attributes of organisational leadership, the five must-have qualities of great leaders, and so it goes on.

However, leadership is not simple arithmetic.

The growth of individual leadership skills and development of leadership teams take time.

Growth has to be nurtured. So, for leadership insights don’t look at paint by numbers, look at something requiring care, patience and constant attention. A lettuce, for instance.

The first lesson from a lettuce is that blame games don’t work.

If a lettuce does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You ask why and adjust your approach.

This was famously pointed out by Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, but the insight holds good in the C-suite as well as in a monastery.

You soon realise you can’t neglect lettuce. It needs tending. Ignore that young, promising plant and it will wither and die. So, you keep checking it. You give it room to grow. You also weed and water to ensure robust development.

Leaders do the same. They see potential, foster it and breed sturdy self-esteem in colleagues and subordinates.

This process should not be left to chance. Proven techniques can be applied and solid structures put in place.

Appropriate thought (plus appropriate investment) pays off as workplace superstars have huge impact. Research shared internationally by Signium, the global talent management practice, shows that superstars are 12 times more productive than average staff.

Companies are increasingly aware of this. It’s one reason international talent management professionals point to a significant uptick over the last five years in demand for high-potential employees.

Talent-spotting benefits are clear; corporate follow-through not so much.

Research indicates only 9% of organisations adopt a systematic process designed to identify high-potential individuals and future leaders.

DIY installation of home-grown talent irrigation is not obligatory. You can buy in a specialist function like this and keep it as long as you need it.

Whatever the approach, four questions should be asked:

  • What leadership capabilities do you need to drive your strategy?
  • What capabilities do you already have?
  • What capabilities can you develop internally?
  • What capabilities should you acquire externally?

Ask these questions, compile a to-do list, act on it and you create fertile ground for leadership development.

While tending other lettuce, smart leaders do not neglect their own development. Outside help is often beneficial here.

We know self-assessment by leaders can be an over-assessment. Research tells us 77% of leaders think they are inspiring. Yet 82% of employees disagree.

Many leaders realise those on the outside looking in could have a point. Therefore, they often seek a more objective external assessment conducted by specialists. This enables a systematic approach to personal leadership enhancement and that extra inspirational element.

Most leaders and wannabee leaders think inspiration and a motivating vision are vital. However, you don’t need to be a silver-tongued leader with charisma to qualify.

Lots of leadership attributes can be inspirational and sometimes just one is enough to rouse workers and colleagues.

So, yes, a painstaking cost-cutter with an unerring eye for detail can be an inspiration to others – as long as he or she is effective and moves the organisation forward.

This perhaps surprising aspect of inspirational leadership was highlighted in a Harvard Business Review article on new research that identified 33 different traits that made leaders stand out and inspired others.

Openness, being a good listener, stress-free elegance in one’s general approach, willingness to recognise the contributions of others … all these and many other attributes are sufficient to make a senior manager an inspiration.

Dig into the detail and you see the growing importance of so-called soft skills, but the underlying message is that there is no single template for stand-out leadership. Inspirational leaders are exceptionally diverse.

However, they share one major attribute – they make a difference.

They are not afraid to confront issues and take brave remedial action. Revitalising colleagues and workers is key. Here, there is a lot to be done. Gallup studies say 70% of employees are ‘actively disengaged’ and that ‘presentism’ can be as crippling.

In South Africa we face another ‘ism’ – pessimism.

The recent descent into recession, corruption, mounting public debt and other challenges make many South Africans downhearted.

Turning that around will take extraordinary leadership. The good news is that there is fertile ground for home-grown leaders to emerge and do just that … if we just keep tending our ‘lettuce’. 

Annelize van Rensburg Director Talent Africa1*Annelize van Rensburg is a director of Signium Africa (previously Talent Africa), a leading South Africa-based executive search and talent management company servicing sub-Saharan Africa.

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