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Leadership in the Digital Age

This post first appeared on the LINE blog on 13th July 2012.

Demand for leadership learning is on the up. As we leave behind the traditional, directive management structures of old and move towards a more service-based virtualised economy, today’s organisations recognise this area as critical.

LINE’s experience in leadership comes from many years of working on change and transformation programmes within organisations. This experience has taught us that the culture of leadership varies widely from organisation to organisation, as do the leadership models and theories used within each of them.

So what approach does LINE – a company whose business is innovation – adopt when helping organisations grow and develop leadership within their workforce?

Approaching leadership

LINE’s approach to leadership development is primarily bespoke. We take into account the client’s existing leadership models, their business goals and strategy, and their existing and future challenges, and design something just for them.

However it would not be true to say that we start each time with a completely blank sheet of paper. We have our own beliefs that we bring to the table, based not on blind faith but on having seen what works on past programmes. We don’t subscribe solely to any one particular model. Instead we are well versed in a number of models, which we will deploy and modify according to the situation.

Fundamentally, we believe it’s about the individual. That’s where we always start: assessing the individuals within a team, to determine their current capacity for leadership, and working with them to improve it.

Diagnostic tools

We have a variety of diagnostic tools to help us in making this initial assessment. We might use a psychometric questionnaire such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), to help them work on their decision making capability. Alternatively, if clients have robust existing data, gathered using their own preferred diagnostic tools, we will work with that. The Leadership Development Framework (LDF) for instance gives people, particularly at a senior level where they are expected to lead through change and complexity, a deep personal insight into how they make sense of the world. It can therefore help them understand why they habitually make the decisions they make, and why they may find certain situations more challenging than others.

The leadership journey

We strongly believe that personal insight is a key starting point for anyone in any organisation on a leadership journey. A person’s presence, personality, style, and view of the world deeply influence the way he or she leads. One-to-one coaching around the results of a diagnostic such as the LDF provides a good entry point and framework for all subsequent leadership work. One coaching session of 90 minutes is enough to start this journey.

Depending on what an organisation has done before, and what their current challenges are, there are many different models and methodologies that we can employ. Situational leadership developed by Blanchard and Hersey, is an extremely useful model and one we use frequently.

To put it simply, this model suggests that managers should use different leadership styles depending on the situation they are in, and depending on employees’ competences in their task areas and commitment to their tasks. You may even lead the same person one way sometimes, and another way at other times.

Blanchard and Hersey characterized leadership style in terms of the amount of direction and of support that the leader gives to his or her followers, resulting in a simple matrix (see diagram):

leadership structure

S1: Telling/directing – High task focus, low relationship focus. Leaders define the roles and tasks of the ‘follower’, and supervise them closely. Decisions are made by the leader and announced, so communication is largely one-way. For people who lack competence but are enthusiastic and committed. They need direction and supervision to get them started.

S2: Selling/coaching – High task focus, high relationship focus. Leaders still define roles and tasks, but seek ideas and suggestions from the follower. Decisions remain the leader’s prerogative, but communication is much more two-way. For people who have some competence but lack commitment. They need direction and supervision because they are still relatively inexperienced. They also need support and praise to build their self esteem, and involvement in decision-making to restore their commitment.

S3: Participating/supporting – Low task focus, high relationship focus. Leaders pass day-to-day decisions, such as task allocation and processes, to the follower. The leader facilitates and takes part in decisions, but control is with the follower. For people who have competence, but lack confidence or motivation. They do not need much direction because of their skills, but support is necessary to bolster their confidence and motivation.

S4: Delegating – Low task focus, low relationship focus. Leaders are still involved in decisions and problem-solving, but control is with the follower. The follower decides when and how the leader will be involved. For people who have both competence and commitment. They are able and willing to work on a project by themselves with little supervision or support.

Effective leaders are versatile in being able to move around the matrix according to the situation, so there is no single style that is always right. However, we tend to have a preferred style, and in applying Situational Leadership you need to know which one that is for you.

There is much more to Situational Leadership, but I hope this gives a good introduction.

Theoretical input such as this can best be done by reading and e-learning – but theoretical input is only part of the story. We think it is important to give people a mixture of this and practical exercises to help with application of knowledge and self-discovery. These are best done in group situations in a workshop.

Innovative workshops

We design our workshops around particular skills – e.g. the difference between management and leadership skills; leadership presence; leadership style and flexibility of style; values-based leadership; leadership Influence and impact; dealing with conflict, ambiguity, complexity, etc.

We work hard to make the workshops challenging, fun and engaging. But more than this, group exercises with teams can be a valuable way of exploring and working with organisational issues that impact on leadership.

An example of how this can function is given by a programme we designed and facilitated recently for a client whose business requires a significant number of medical staff to be employed.

Issues had been identified within this group of medical staff around decision-making – in particular, a tendency to escalate problems that could probably be dealt with at a more operational level. Was there something about the environments these staff had come from that was causing the clash of cultures with the organisation they had joined? Many had worked in hospitals – and in particular, in A&E departments – where the attitude to risk was extremely specific and the hierarchy more rigid.

In workshops, enquiry work was carried out around the cultures these staff had grown up in and how they differed from that of the client organisation. This identified similarities and differences. The next stage was to design activities, using the situational leadership model, where staff could come to a realisation of why they behaved at work in the way they did – getting them to make their own assumptions visible to themselves. Suddenly it became obvious to them that there was a wider choice of behaviours available.

Further work involved the use of brand cards (scattered on a table, with staff asked to pick up three that best aligned to the culture of environments where they had worked. We also used drama to explore triage culture, and did some stakeholder mapping. Another set of ideas we drew on was Dan Goleman’s six styles of leadership learners were asked to stand beside the style that was their dominant leadership style (all chose ‘democratic’, interestingly) and then were helped to see what it would take for them to step into a more directive style when needed. They were then encouraged to take this experiment into the workplace and report back later on the results.

Conclusion

The details above give just a taste of the very successful work that was carried out with this client and serves to indicate the complementary roles played by theoretical input and practical face-to-face group activities in LINE’s leadership work.