The Four Tenets of Effective Leadership

By: Geetha Ramamoorthi, Managing Director, KBR India

In today’s rapidly changing geopolitical and socio-economic environment the rules of the game with respect to leadership are changing. The fundamentals which were the sine qua non of successful leadership earlier are no longer relevant, and what makes it even more challenging is, this change is occurring more frequently than ever before.

With generational shifts and business model evolution, some fundamental attributes are grabbing the top spots and one can see coaches, bloggers, authors, and social media enthusiasts advocate these as non-negotiable for staying successful nee relevant today.

These are Listen, Reflect, Adapt, Lead

1. Listen

More than ever in the past, the power of listening and the impact it has on the speaker has been amplified beyond imagination in the post pandemic era, and very rightly so. Listening is a powerful tool which empowers both the speaker and the listener; the speaker because he or she gets the opportunity to express his or her feelings, concerns, emotions, wants etc, and the listener because, he or she who listens will always stand to gain in terms of knowledge, understanding, appreciation, perspectives, and empathy, all of which go a long way in honing leadership skills.

When we listen actively, we practice mindfulness. At an organization level, effective active listening provides a lot of benefits such as greater trust, more collaboration, stronger relationships, unfettered innovation, inclusive culture, and better decision making.

In his bestseller book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Steven Covey states, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”. This is a trap people easily fall into which erodes the advantages of trust, understanding, collaboration, empathy, openness, and inclusivity. We need to learn to leverage the power of effective active listening to better help people to feel heard and valued.

2. Reflect

To have the will and willingness to reflect is a great virtue and is often a manifestation of the recognition and acceptance of the fact that none of us is perfect and all-knowing, and we always strive to become better individuals be it in our personal or professional lives.

When you reflect on what you hear and speak, you get an opportunity to introspect, you get a chance to analyse and assimilate, you get the benefit of not acting in haste and repenting later, and most importantly it helps you grow wiser.

Reflecting from a leadership standpoint is very powerful, as it helps one gain a deeper understanding of their own values, skills, strengths, knowledge, and shortcomings. It gives people an opportunity to learn from their experiences and evolve as better individuals, and also respond better to challenges.

Freshwater (2008) described that Gibbs’s (1988) and Kolb’s (1984) non-linear, circular nature of reflection illustrated the ongoing development of the practitioner and then, by synthesizing some of the former authors’ work, identified three stages of the reflective process: (i) awareness of uncomfortable feelings and thoughts; (ii) critical analysis of the situation; and (iii) development of a new perspective.

The authors of the study identified six components as essential for reflection: (i) emotional reaction; (ii) description; (iii) internal examination; (iv) critical analysis; (v) evaluation; and (vi) planning new action

A Forbes article points out” Self-reflection in leadership means devoting time to think about yourself as a leader and is critical for your leadership development. It involves contemplating your current level of skills, strengths, weaknesses, behavioral patterns and how you seek to influence others. It is also about exploring and getting clarity on your values, goals and ambitions”. Simon Sinek explains this simplistically in this short video;  Simon Sinek on How Reflection Informs Personal Growth - YouTube

Reflection therefore has assumed significance as a must-do activity for leaders to thrive and survive.

3. Adapt

The need and ability to adapt is as old as the origins of human beings on this earth, in my view. As humans we have adapted to a zillion changes in the world we live in, our habits, our thoughts, our actions and our behaviours have continued to adapt to changing external factors and circumstances, which actually means, it is quite easy for us to adapt when the environment around us changes. Is that always true? Perhaps not, mainly because we sometimes lack the will to adapt, though we may have the ability to adapt.

The success hinges upon the outcome of a contest between the mind and the heart. If the heart accepts the need to adapt, the mind will allow you to go through the process effectively.

Leadership roles increase in complexity as one progresses in his or her career, calling for influencing and persuading skills. And, as a leader’s seniority increases, he/ she needs to learn to empower, delegate, form alliances, let go of some of the skills that enabled them to perform effectively in earlier leadership roles, step out of comfort zone and take calculated risks.

When a leader is under a high level of pressure, he or she can become ‘rigid’ in their reactions and respond to challenges in ways that have become ingrained or habitual. Those habitual responses may no longer be appropriate for the situation. As such, adaptability is an increasingly important and valuable skill for leaders to develop.

4. Lead

When I listened to one of the leadership gurus say, “Leadership is not a position or role, it is a behaviour”, I felt this was such a powerful message. Anyone can lead if he or she has the conviction and courage to do so. However, in the context of key tenets of effective leadership, leading with empathy is most powerful. An empathetic leader is one who has a genuine interest in his/her team members' lives, the challenges they face, and their overall feelings.

More importantly, one must lead with purpose. When one leads with purpose, he or she radiates energy and passion for the work, which impacts everyone around them, inspiring and motivating others.

Some of the characteristics of purpose-driven leaders are, passion to see the business succeed, keeping purpose front and centre, focus on the impact the business has on its people, customers, and communities, cultivate an enable environment for people to feel safe to make mistakes and stay resilient and positive in the face of challenges.

Laurence Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock wrote in his annual letter to CEO’s: "Profits are in no way inconsistent with purpose—in fact, profits and purpose are inextricably linked."

The story of Microsoft is a case in point. When Satya Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, purpose took center stage, marking the beginning of a renaissance. Nadella brought a growth mindset to Microsoft, infusing the culture with the mission, “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” Nadella set up One Week, an annual gathering that included a science fair, a nonprofit fair, Q&A’s with Microsoft's leadership, and hackathons. The activities were designed to encourage employees to focus on passion-led projects that advance the mission.

Microsoft moved into cloud-computing and subscription services, engaged open-source development community, partnered with its competitors, and a few years later,became the third company to reach a net worth of 1 trillion USD, after Apple and Amazon. As Nadella shows, to reap the full and lasting benefits of a purpose-driven culture, leaders need to weave purpose into the fabric of the work. In data from 39 different industries, 73% of employees at a “purpose-driven” company are engaged, compared to just 23% in other companies, according to a study by Pwc. Leading with purpose is hence a responsibility and not a position.

The above four tenets when imbibed and demonstrated in day-to-day behaviours can make a person a more well-rounded and effective leader that can inspire and lead with conviction and compassion.