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The Demands of Executive Leadership

by Barry Conchie

What separates great leaders from all the rest?

Who wants to follow someone who's going nowhere? Or someone who's unreliable or untrustworthy? Organizations wrestle with these questions and many others as they confront the elusive challenge of defining effective executive leadership.

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Most people are certain that leadership is about direction, about giving people a sense of purpose that inspires and motivates them to commit and achieve. Leadership is also about a relationship between people -- leaders and followers -- that is built on firm ground; enduring values build trust. Few would disagree with these views.

Not everyone, however, offers the same answer to this question: What's the best way to develop talented executive leaders to achieve sustained high performance? Indeed, Gallup researchers have long been intrigued with this question. Having studied leadership talent for more than 40 years, Gallup set out to discover the demands that executives must meet to be successful. We also wanted to uncover the developmental framework that would enhance leadership performance.

Our research confirmed the importance of two rather obvious demands -- visioning and maximizing values. What was surprising was the presence of five other important demands that are essential to the development of all great leaders.

The research

First, a few words about how we arrived at these demands. Our study drew from a wide cross section of leaders who had a proven track record of success; we had evidence that they all delivered the goods. They were measurably the best when compared to others in similar roles. Their performance could be tracked to significant improvements to the bottom line. They enjoyed the endorsement of their bosses, peers, and direct reports. And they sustained high performance, often through adverse times.

For our initial leadership-development research, we identified and studied 100 leaders. They were drawn from general management, human resources, marketing, sales, manufacturing, research and development, and finance. They represented distinct levels of hierarchy, from managers to directors to vice presidents and senior executives. They had all faced significant demands that built and developed their leadership talent. Indeed, it was in researching this group that we uncovered the key demands that every leader must meet to achieve high performance.

We then expanded our study to include an additional 5,019 leaders from a wide range of industries and sectors, including education, healthcare, the military, government, finance, insurance, and retail. Our analysis directly linked those leaders who developed their talents by encountering the demands to significant improvements in their overall leadership performance. Their companies achieved specific business outcomes such as financial growth, customer and employee engagement, employee retention, and safety. Our continued tracking of more than 40,000 leaders continues to affirm these findings.

The demands

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It's no great surprise that visioning is one of the demands. Successful executive leaders are able to look out, across, and beyond the organization. They have a talent for seeing and creating the future. They use highly visual language that paints pictures of the future for those they lead. As a result, they seem to attain bigger goals because they create a collective mindset that propels people to help them make their vision a reality.

These leaders also recognize that through visioning, they showcase their values and core beliefs. By highlighting what is important about work, great leaders make clear what is important to them in life. They clarify how their own values -- particularly a concern for people -- relate to their work. They also communicate a sense of personal integrity and a commitment to act based on their values.

As a result, employees know where they stand with these leaders. Their values -- consistent and unchanging through time -- operate like a buoy anchored in the ocean, holding firm against the elements while indicating the way.

By galvanizing people with a clear vision and strong values, the leaders we studied were able to challenge their teams to achieve significant work goals. In fact, those leaders themselves had been assigned significant challenging experiences at key points in their careers while being given the freedom to determine how they would achieve outcomes.

Confronting challenges produces beneficial effects for executive leaders. It accelerates their learning curve, stretches their capacity for high performance, and broadens their horizons about what is possible for an organization to achieve. As one of the leaders we studied said, "Our company had experienced three cycles of negative revenue growth, but I knew that our next cycle would give us the opportunity to turn in our best figures ever. Everyone thought I was crazy, but we did it, then did it again."

But great executive leaders aren't simply hard charging and highly driven. They also understand the importance of personal relationships. Indeed, the leaders we studied consistently had a close relationship either with their manager or someone in the best position to advise them. This is often someone from outside their organization who serves as their mentor . These mentoring relationships are not the product of formal company-wide mentoring programs -- not that these aren't helpful. Instead, these informal, yet successful, mentoring relationships enable each individual leader's needs and differences to be taken into account.

Inspired by their positive experiences with mentors, the leaders we studied have become intentional mentors themselves. They selectively pick one, two, or three highly talented individuals and invest greatly in their growth and development over a significant period of time. They see the success of these "mentees" as a reflection of their own success. These leaders practice a form of succession planning that cultivates the next generation of leaders.

Beyond close one-to-one relationships, executive leaders also create rapport at many levels across their organization and beyond. They know the benefits of building a wide constituency. One leader said, "My work forces me to have a relationship with certain people. I just think about those I don't yet work with and figure out who might be useful to know. I nearly always find that relationships built this way bring dividends." These leaders understand networks and the importance of networking.

In all their relationships, effective executive leaders enlighten others because they can make sense of experience. They also learn from their mistakes and their successes, and -- as they seek out a range of experts across their wide constituency -- they ask questions and listen.

What's more, these leaders are able to deal with the complexity of business life and help those around them make sense of it. They do this by keeping things simple and making information accessible. This way, these leaders help individuals understand what's going on so that they are better able to achieve success. As one leader put it, "There's so much happening that affects our work. I make sure, at each meeting, that we understand all the important factors and ensure that the next steps are clearly laid out."

The most revealing discovery was that effective leaders have an acute sense of their own strengths and weaknesses. They know who they are -- and who they are not. They don't try to be all things to all people. Their personalities and behaviors are indistinguishable between work and home. They are genuine. It is this absence of pretense that helps them connect to others so well.

Organizations are struggling to build and grow their executive leadership capacity. Our research suggests that talented leaders require the very best development experiences to realize their potential. And for this potential to be converted into sustained, high organizational performance, these experiences must be framed around the key demands of executive leadership.


Shaping Executive Leadership Development: Key Questions

Visioning

  • Who contributes to, controls, or communicates the "big picture"?
  • Are leaders encouraged to "paint pictures" of the future?
  • What opportunities do leaders have to talk about and shape the future?

Maximizing Values

  • How do corporate values align with individual values?
  • Are leaders encouraged to lead with their values?
  • Are leaders asked to describe the values that are important to them?

Challenging Experience

  • Are leaders free to think outside of conventional approaches?
  • How much latitude are leaders afforded in decision making?
  • Are leaders given significant responsibilities with wide-ranging delegation?

Mentoring

  • Is value attached to mentoring outside of the organization?
  • Are leaders expected to accelerate highly talented individuals through the organization to their optimum levels of performance?

Building a Constituency

  • Are leaders expected to grow networks beyond their immediate work relationships?
  • Does your organization promote the growth of networks through measuring their business impact?

Making Sense of Experience

  • Are leaders able to meet with peers to share understanding and learning of new issues?
  • Is there a clear leadership focus on "lean" communication?

Knowing Self

  • Is every leader clear about his or her strengths and weaknesses?
  • Does your organization sponsor individualism in leadership through role models?


-- Updated 14 November 2008


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