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Leveraging the Softer Side of Leadership to Drive Hard Business Results

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As I mentioned in a previous column, over the last few years I have had the great fortune of interacting with leaders who represent a variety of industries from all over the world. This interaction comes through my role as a leadership/business coach, a facilitator of leadership training and interviews for this column.

Having the opportunity to interface with leaders on a regular basis creates tremendous learning opportunities for me as I work on enhancing my own leadership effectiveness.  I also have a chance to share this learning while working with leaders. One of the most compelling learning opportunities has come from observing leaders who simultaneously leverage both the hard side of leadership (e.g. technical ability, knowledge, experience, etc.) with the soft side (e.g. communication skills such as listening and questioning, empathy, etc.) to drive business results.

The delicate balance between the hard and soft side of leadership is not easy. It requires discipline and confidence as well as, in the words of Jim Collins in his groundbreaking book Good to Great, ‘a blend of extreme personal humility with intense professional will’. Collins was describing the qualities of a Level 5 leader – the type of leadership that consistently showed up in ‘great companies’ as he and his team embarked on a 5 year research project to understand what catapulted a company from ‘merely good to truly great’.   

Something I have noticed is that many leaders and organizations do not fully appreciate the value of the softer side of leadership. The soft side is viewed as a nice thing to be aware of (maybe even the ‘right’ thing), but not necessarily the most effective means of achieving results. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is some convincing research that sheds light on how much more productive we can be as leaders if we understand how to utilize the softer side. Here are some points to consider:

Why leaders fail:
An OI Partners (a global talent management firm) survey found that “inadequate management skills such as leadership, motivating people and building team work are the top reasons why executives and managers today are not working out.’ This highlights what organizations expect from leaders today. It also is very important to note that there is no mention of a leader’s intellect or expertise as reasons for failure.

The value of employee engagement:
Engagement is an important topic for every leader to understand. The Gallup Management Journal has pointed out in numerous studies that a highly engaged workforce ‘generates superior performance. Teams with higher engagement levels have significantly higher productivity and profitability than workgroups with lower engagement levels.’

How to increase employee engagement:
One effective way to increase engagement in an organization is to create the discipline of focusing on employee strengths.  Unfortunately, this is not always easy to do. Many well meaning organizations force leaders to take a weakness-fixing approach to employee development. This means that employees are given feedback only on things they need to improve. Worse yet, many leaders give no feedback at all partly, in my opinion, because they are often unsure of how to give effective feedback.  Gallup data found that a weakness-fixing approach results in a 2:1 ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees and ignoring, or giving no feedback at all, results in a 1:20 ratio.  Compare these ratios with what Gallup found when leaders focused on an employee’s strengths – the likelihood of employee disengagement was reduced to 1in 100.

Why emotional intelligence matters: 
The Harvard Business Review called emotional intelligence, which discounts IQ as the sole measure of one’s intelligence, “a revolutionary, paradigm-shattering idea”. Daniel Goleman, who authored the innovative book Emotional Intelligence, revealed research done at 120 companies where employers were asked to describe the abilities that made for excellence in their workforce. Goleman found that 67 per cent of the abilities described were emotional competencies – this means that two out of three were generic behavioural skills beyond IQ or expertise requirements. Employers wanted their employees to have strong listening and communication skills, to be adaptable, to be confident and to have the ability to work well with others.

As Goleman points out, the reason why emotional intelligence matters to organizations now, and why they want to enhance emotional intelligence within their leaders, is because in competitive industries there is limited growth from new products. The best companies understand that they do not compete just on products but on how well they develop and engage their people.
How can leaders enhance their soft leadership skills?

The good news is a leader simply having an increased understanding of the value of soft leadership skills, along with a desire to develop this area, will see improvements in how they interact with their team. Leaders who want to see more dramatic gains should consider getting feedback on their leadership by completing an emotional intelligence assessment and/or a 360-degree feedback assessment. I recommend hiring a certified coach, finding a strong mentor or engaging a person who excels at people development to review the leader’s feedback. The next step is to create a leadership development plan that outlines how the leader will continue to leverage their strengths and enhance areas that are limiting their leadership potential.

People tend to fall down on the final step of creating a leadership development plan. It is probably the most challenging and, when followed, also the most rewarding part of the process of enhancing soft leadership skills.  Aristotle once said “We are what we repeatedly do, excellence then is not an act but a habit.” – why not make leadership excellence a habit in 2012?

Dave Veale is a business and leadership coach and founder of Vision Coaching Inc. in Saint John. He can be reached by email at Dave@VisionCoachingInc.com. His column appears every other Thursday. To read past columns go to www.LeadershipUnleashed.ca

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