Thoughts on Leadership: Senior Leaders
By Mike DeGrosky
Senior leaders, wishing to remain free of the boss bubble, will lead adaptively and inclusively.
Senior leaders, those assigned to lead other leaders and managers while overseeing organizational functions, regions, units or the entire organization, exercise enormous influence with the people they are charged to lead. People look to their leaders for signals and cues; paying attention to the leader’s actions; observing them, scrutinizing that makes senior leadership a big responsibility. However, the pressures of senior leadership can lead senior leaders into a trap, a self-defeating pattern that makes redeeming this enormous responsibility tougher than it already is. We all know that either an effective leader or a less than fully effective leader at the top of an organization or organizational unit can have far reaching consequences for the productivity, job satisfaction and commitment of people as well as both the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.
Feeling the pressure of enormous expectations, if not careful, senior leaders can trap themselves in what I call the boss bubble. In the boss bubble, senior leaders feel smarter, wiser, cleverer than people they lead; surround themselves with people who reflect their own thinking and reinforce them; and cut themselves off from the people close to the work. Soon, you’re breathing your own exhaust; acting on erroneous beliefs, assumptions and outdated information; and failing to make use of the talent in your organization.
So, what’s a senior leader, who wants to stay out of the boss bubble, to do? First, an effective leader in today’s complex and turbulent environment must practice adaptive leadership. An adaptive leader builds collective understanding and shared action throughout the organization. They engage the organization in continuous learning and adjust the organization’s operations based on shared knowledge. Adaptive leadership requires enabling the organization to constantly assess its actions and acknowledging that the organization will have to continuously adjust and adapt their operations as they examine the outcomes of decisions and learn from them. That requires nimbleness that centralized decision-making does not allow.
Effective, adaptive leaders also maximize transparency in their decision-making and accept both challenges and feedback from the people they lead. In today’s world, a major challenge faced by senior leaders is that their operating environment changes all the time and the leader can be quite isolated from the contradictions and realities of critical operations. The best senior leaders I know can acknowledge and accept that they are often not the most knowledgeable person in the room, defer to the expertise residing in their organization, and streamline their decision-making, trusting, and relying on, experienced and knowledgeable staff.
Conversely, when senior leaders feel the need to be the smartest person in the room or the centralized decisionmaker, they often revert to risk-averse and isolated decisions that feel safe but often prove inadequate and leave their most knowledgeable personnel feeling less than empowered or even excluded. When leaders acknowledge their humanness, their imperfection, and their fallibility, they create an environment of openness, psychological safety, and mutual trust essential in the truly adaptive organization.
The most effective senior leaders I have known have been inclusive leaders, those who make people feel as if they are treated fairly and respectfully and that they are valued and belong. Recent research indicates that when people feel included, they boost organizational performance because they engage, work with commitment, and collaborate. So how does one lead inclusively? I recently read a thought provoking Harvard Business Review article by Juliet Bourke and Andrea Espedido, in which the authors suggest that people feel included when they see their leaders are aware of, and acknowledge, not only their own biases but those of the organization. Most often, that looks like a leader consistently challenging their own assumptions, inviting others to stress test their thought processes for them, and encouraging others to also be aware of their own assumptions and pre-conceptions. According to Bourke and Espedido, people also want to see their leaders address their biases with humility and empathy; a combination that causes people to see their leaders as approachable, trustworthy and supportive.
For me, inclusive leadership is all about connection and creating a trusting environment in which people feel they belong. Doing so requires the leader to connect with people; communicate openly, honestly and often; instill confidence that the rules of engagement apply equally; clearly communicate their expectations; and to ensure that everyone is on the same page. When these conditions are in place, people can relax, think, engage with one another, innovate, and create.
If you want to stay out of the boss bubble, you must trust and empower people to do their jobs. This means, among other things, providing clear intent and then allowing employees to organize their own time and work; something researchers have identified as a very important leadership competency. Distribute power and responsibility throughout the organization, rely on the people who are closest to the work, and do not feel the need to make every decision, or even be involved in every decision. Research has repeatedly shown the positive effects empowerment and autonomy have on productivity, job satisfaction and commitment.
According to Bourke and Espedido, inclusive leaders show openness to new ideas and foster organizational learning, and that squares with my personal experience of effective senior leadership. Senior leaders who encourage people to learn from their experiences and who openly support thinking that arises from that learning, are some of the most effective senior leaders I have encountered. It has been by observing those leaders that I’ve realized that, if leaders are to encourage learning, they first must be open to learning themselves and be prepared to change, without embarrassment, their course as necessary. That requires an approach to problem-solving and decision-making that allows others to generate knowledge and solutions without the senior leader ver-steering.
Senior leaders exercise immense influence with the people they lead; and people look to them for guidance, pay close attention to the leader’s actions, find meaning in their every move, and follow their lead. Consequently, an effective senior leader can exert enormous positive impact on the organization and its people. Conversely, an ineffective leader at the top of an organization or organizational unit can have far reaching negative consequences for the productivity, job satisfaction and commitment of people as well as on both the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization. Senior leaders, wishing to remain free of the boss bubble, will lead adaptively and inclusively. They will recognize and make use of the intelligence, wisdom, and talent of those around them. They will seek out diversity of thought and defer to the expertise in their organization. They will question their own assumptions, encourage others to do likewise, maximize transparency in their decision-making, and accept both challenges and feedback from people. They will connect with people and create a trusting environment in which people feel they belong. Finally, they will trust and empower people to do their jobs, show openness to new ideas and foster organizational learning. These are not simple or easy things to do, but things to strive for — when an organization’s leaders and rank-and-file witness the senior leader seriously working toward these goals, it can create a rippling, positive effect throughout an organization.
MIKE DEGROSKY is Chief of the Fire Protection Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Forestry Division. He taught for the Department of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University for 10 years. Follow Mike on Twitter @guidegroup or via LinkedIn.