How should leaders behave?

I’ve borrowed this title from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review written by Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen for 12 years, and now at Harvard Business School.

The basis of the article was how Amgen could develop talent in their leadership pipeline.  There are a number of things I found interesting about the model they created to find and then provide professional development to up-and-coming leaders.

Often when we try to define leaders we think in terms of “traits” of a great leader. If you just Google leadership traits, you find things like honesty, focus, passion, respect, excellent persuasion abilities, and so on. (http://www.cnn.com/2011/LIVING/08/03/good.leader.traits.cb/).  What I liked about Amgen’s approach is that they chose to look at behaviors instead of traits; Sharer indicates that “the focus on the behaviors we expected leaders to display.”

For me, the key word here is display. From an assessment point of view, we can observe and therefore measure behaviors; it’s a lot more difficult to measure traits. As Sharer explained, “By casting them instead (as compared to traits) as behaviors, we underscored two messages: It isn’t worth much to have an attribute that you don’t display; and if you fall short of what the best leaders do, you can close that gap.”

As an aside, it occurs to me that we often make hiring decisions for leadership positions based on one’s academic record and academic achievements, not based on their behaviors as a leader. I wonder if those are the smartest choices we make.

Below are the behaviors Sharer and his colleagues arrived at by what he calls an “impassioned debate,” followed by my own thoughts about each behavior.

Consciously act as a role model:

This behavior is seen as a conscious choice. “I plan to and will behave as a role model.” It isn’t something that happens by accident, and because it is a conscious decision, as a leader I’ve thought through what it means to be a role model and what behaviors a role model exhibits.

Deliver strong results in the right way:

While Sharer doesn’t go into what “in the right way” means, for me the right way is that while getting results you still treat others with dignity and respect.  Clearly as leaders we must deliver strong results but not at the cost of treating others with dignity and respect. One way of doing this is by empowering others and being clear about what is to be accomplished.

Build, develop, and lead empowered and diverse teams:

Wow, there are a lot of behaviors in this item.  You begin by building teams, bringing together individuals to work on a common problem.  In other words, the first things a leader needs to recognize is that they may not have the right or best answer. They also need to realize that the best answers come from a group of minds working on a problem.  Let’s face it, most (if not all) significant problems are multidisciplinary, and the best way to attack this type of problem is with a multidisciplinary team.

Next a leader needs to develop and lead the team.  Teams do not develop that team spirit/”interactiveness” if the leader is constantly looking over their shoulder.  If you want the team to provide insights on solving a significant problem, then you need to get out of the way.  Having said that, the leadership component of this behavior from my vantage point is to be there to provide focus on the problem that the team is addressing.

One behavior of leadership I would look for is the ability to build diverse teams, understanding that each individual will bring their own expertise to the problem.  We not only need diverse expertise but also diverse life experiences, which means we may all see the problem a bit differently.  I can’t help but think about literature that reminded us to include the crazies on the team — these are the people who will think way outside of the box, and while they may not have the right answer, inevitably the crazies will help lead to a more creative and robust solution.

Motivate others with a vision for the future that can be implemented:

All effective leaders need to have a vision for what the future is — what is it we are striving to be?  And even more important than the vision is an ability to communicate the vision to your team.  Through that communication a leader should motivate others to strive towards the vision.  I really like the addition of the parenthetical phrase “that can be implemented.”   It is a nice reminder that our vision for the future state must be obtainable and that we will know when it when we reach it.

In closing the article, Sharer concedes that the process of identifying leadership behaviors is extremely time consuming but that “as a CEO, you should realize that your greatest contribution is the behavior you cause or allow to thrive in the organization’s upper ranks.”   This statement reflects for me what Jim Collins refers to as Level 5 Leadership in Good to Great.  While Level Five Leaders “are incredibly ambitious—their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.”  (p. 21)

For me, Sharer truly captures the crux of one of most important behaviors of a great leader with his phrase “your greatest contributions is the behavior you cause or allow to thrive.”  We all know of situations where we’ve heard individuals expressing concern about the personality a new leader will bring to the office (whether it is the good leader of the North or the wicked leader of the West). Our behavior as a leader does “cause” things to happen, positive and negative.  Great leaders have an ability to take a meta-perspective on their own behaviors to assure that their behaviors are “causing” positive outcomes and allowing their team to thrive.  At the end of the day, great leaders are positive, and their behavior consistently reflects a positive approach.

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