Business Journal

Leadership Is a Process, Not a Role

Why great leadership demands self-awareness, self-regulation -- and sometimes, self-sacrifice

Sometimes leaders are glorified; sometimes they're reviled. Often, they're simply taken for granted. Whatever the case, leaders clearly play a vital role in the success or failure of every organization -- not to mention every city, state, and country.

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So how come most fast-food workers get more direct and ongoing training in their fields than do many top business and political leaders? The fact is, there's a dearth of authentic personal-development programs for the very people who make or break organizations -- and even societies.

This is the situation the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Global Leadership Institute set out to rectify. This research institute, housed within the College of Business Administration, offers masters and doctoral programs focusing on authentic strengths-based leadership development.

The program's director, Dr. Bruce Avolio, the Donald O. and Shirley Clifton Chair in Leadership, has studied leadership in dozens of countries, and his research and consulting includes work with seven militaries around the globe. Dr. Avolio has written more than 80 articles and five books on leadership, including Full Leadership Development: Building the Vital Forces in Organizations, and Made/Born: Leadership Development in Balance, which will be published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates in 2004. He is also a Gallup Senior Scientist -- one of a group of leading researchers who share their expertise with Gallup.

Dr. Avolio's insights shed light on some enduring truths of leadership, including why leaders have to be trustworthy to produce sustainable performance, and why all leaders, ultimately, have to know themselves to lead and grow their followers and their organizations to full potential.

GMJ: Why the focus on leadership development? What is there to be learned?

Dr. Avolio: The field of leadership development is probably the most under-researched in all studies of leadership. Yet, it's probably one of the most crucial factors in sustaining organizational success. So in our institute, we wanted to research how best to develop leaders, particularly those who were authentic leaders, based on a strengths-based philosophy. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to help people learn to leverage their talents to be more effective leaders.

GMJ: What's your vision for leadership development?

Avolio: To me, leadership is not a role, it's a process involving how an individual or a group influences others toward a particular goal or objective. Leadership development occurs across one's life span. Some people qualify that process -- and what it means -- by adding words like inspiring leadership or directive leadership. I look at it as a social-influence process. Many leadership development programs don't come close to what life does to produce outstanding leaders. So one of the most important elements of our work on leadership development is the focus we take on sustaining the development experience over an extended period of time, keeping in mind our impact points on performance.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Global Leadership Institute (UNL GLI) enables leaders to go out, apply what they learned, and learn how to do things better -- with our extended support -- even when they're "officially" through with our program. We track our leadership students over time and support them -- exactly when they need it, we hope -- to help them get through challenges they haven't confronted before. In the MBA program [that the UNL GLI offers in partnership with Gallup], we instituted a coaching process that continues three years after graduation. We do this because once leaders accumulate this knowledge, then go out and try it, we find they generally need support to get through their initial challenges to be successful.

GMJ: Not to be facetious, but none of my college professors offered to be there three years later to help me with post-graduate challenges.

Avolio: It's like telling someone, "Here, read this computer manual. Now put the manual down. In about six months, come back and show us what you just learned to do with the computer." It's absurd -- and yet that's what people expect leaders to do. That's why we offer this kind of ongoing support.

GMJ: Can anybody learn to be a leader?

Avolio: Yes, but in very different levels of capacity, and I think that goes against the grain of what most people think. There are moments when people with the needed strengths will emerge, and that can vary tremendously depending on the nature of the context.

I think there is an enormous range of opportunities for people to lead, not the least of which is self-leadership. You establish your own guide point and think, This is what I'd like to accomplish in my world, in my slice of humanity. But there is an enormous self-fulfilling prophecy that people come to believe: If they're told they're not born to lead, then why bother putting energy into it? It keeps some really good people from having an impact in terms of leadership. I'd rather err in the direction that more -- rather than fewer -- people can lead.

GMJ: Tell me about your emphasis on self-awareness. You don't hear a lot about that in business administration programs.

Avolio: We're increasingly focusing on self-awareness and what it constitutes. As people go through life, their experiences change who they are if they have any sense of themselves. Some people close themselves off from life; they stop developing themselves. We're trying to include self-awareness as part of the life span development process. We believe you really release people when you help them identify what their talents and strengths are. It gives them a sense of clarity about themselves that allows them to explore in greater depth what they can be and to self-regulate. It provides a tremendous level of focus.

I think leadership development should be easier than open-heart surgery

For instance, if I learn what my talents are, my new focus will be on how to leverage them -- and perhaps I won't worry so much about the things that I've kind of stumbled through. At the same time, I look to other people and think about how I can help them leverage their strengths with mine. It's all part of the process of developing self-awareness.

In our leadership program, I hope we put people through more positive growth experiences rather than major negative life events that are often seen in the popular literature to cause someone to become "a better leader." A while back, I had three executives together, and they were waxing enthusiastically about the kind of leaders they had been -- right before they had their stress-related quadruple bypass heart surgeries. Afterward, they miraculously became more open to developing themselves and their leadership. I think leadership development should be easier than open-heart surgery.

GMJ: What are the talents of highly successful leaders?

Avolio: In the long run, I can't imagine a leader who would last without an orientation toward the future or the capacity to leverage it in others. That's a crucial one. However, leaders who plan for the future without a strong sense of belief or responsibility are, I think, potentially dangerous people.

Leaders who plan for the future without a strong sense of belief or responsibility are, I think, potentially dangerous people

It's wonderful to have a leader with Empathy talent, but there have been many great leaders without it. Hopefully, they surround themselves with people who have Empathy, so that others feel like their needs are considered and taken care of. I think Ideation is an important talent theme, but it is more important in certain leadership roles than others. In industries that turn over ideas every couple of years, such as nanotechnology and biotech and life sciences, it's extremely important that leaders in those positions are fertile with ideas.

GMJ: What about Command?

Avolio: Some people would argue that Command talents are important, and in the leadership literature, talent in this theme has been called "dominance." And clearly, leaders tend to be more dominant or command-oriented in general. I think we're moving into a time of purer leadership, where Command probably won't be as important to the kind of organizations that we're going to be creating. In fact, "command" will be shared to a much greater extent.

GMJ: Does that have anything to do with the influx of women into higher echelons of business? Or do women simply have to be dominating to get results?

Avolio: I think women have to be more dominant in this particular period of time. Very few people at Hewlett-Packard would say that [Chairman and CEO] Carly Fiorina doesn't have Command. But I do think that the numbers of women in very senior positions throughout industry and government are changing ideas in this country -- and eventually globally.

GMJ: What's an example of that?

Avolio: I vaguely remember Eisenhower when I was growing up, I remember Kennedy somewhat, and I remember Johnson very vividly. But I never remember any of them crying. And yet it seems like our president can cry now, and it's okay. Earlier, tears would have been perceived as a tremendous weakness, whereas right now it seems so much more acceptable. And I think what's happened is that more women have entered into these very senior positions, allowing us to all be more in touch with our basic emotions. And leadership itself has changed. You might say that leaders have become more androgynous -- they can be understanding, and they can also be very tough.

GMJ: Every day, you hear about some new and horrible business scandal. It seems as if the robber barons have given up on the public and have started robbing their own businesses. These leaders are terrible examples of self-interest, yet leaders have to have a certain amount of self-interest to perform, don't they?

Avolio: Well, at the very base, self-interest is about survival. But in a world where survival isn't the only issue, leaders must make decisions that aren't necessarily based just on self-interest. And sometimes leaders must ask people to ignore what's best for themselves -- that's one of the fundamental challenges that every leader at every level has to face. But they also have to take into consideration the impact that will have on those people. These are the trade-offs that leaders make all the time, and those who aren't even at the level of enlightened self-interest will have much greater difficulty taking their organizations to the next level to sustain verifiable growth and performance.

GMJ: It sounds like leaders have to make painful choices, sacrifices.

Avolio: Leadership requires strengths-based leaders who build a sense of identification with the mission in their people and who realize that sometimes, leaders must sacrifice and allow others to push the mission forward. That's a huge challenge. It's a real sacrifice. But to me, that's what leadership is about. Leaders make choices and sacrifices to focus on something they want to accomplish. Thinking about great successes, it often took a huge sacrifice to create a great accomplishment.

GMJ: How does the idea of their legacy affect leaders?

Avolio: A key element of leadership is how leaders frame things. Dictators frame things to control people: "I'm going to control you because that's the only way I can accomplish my desires." But the kind of leader people want to follow frames the world differently, in a way that leverages others' potential. These leaders understand that they can't control things beyond their life limits. If they want to have an impact, then they're going to have to change some of the things they do. They understand that if they don't have people's trust, if they only control the direction their followers are going, they have no chance at building a sustainable legacy. Basically, once they're gone, their followers will knock down their statues and move on.

GMJ: Do you have to trust your leader to perform? Or is it enough to trust the mission?

Avolio: Well, leadership without trust is a false sense of influence. Trust is at the center of what influential leadership is about. Identification with a leader is a profound part of trust that in turn creates trust in the mission. Throughout history, leaders have had followers who have identified with them so much, they've been willing to give up their lives for the cause or mission. Those feelings of trust and identification are universal -- whether it's a soldier, a nurse in a hospital, or an employee for the railroad. If people truly believe in the organization and identify with its leadership, they'll work as hard as it takes to do what needs to be done. That's an awesome form of control -- and it comes from the inside out.

-- Interviewed by Jennifer Robison

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