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What qualities and behaviours do leaders need to display in order to lead effectively and achieve desired outcomes? Questions such as these have been asked thousands of times and no doubt will continue to be asked again and again, each answer providing its own viewpoint.

Traditional models

The academic literature is rife with research identifying the qualities required for effective (or destructive) leadership. Traditionally, models of leadership have purported to uncover the type of behaviour a leader needs to display in order to achieve a certain outcome (in a business setting, outcomes are often increased productivity, rises in sales, business growth and so on). These are widely referred to as behaviour-outcome models and suggest that changes in leaders’ behaviours can directly affect an outcome. So, for example, if a leader demonstrates strategic thinking this will directly impact on higher productivity.

Too simplistic

Whilst this may be true as an overarching principle, critics of such models would suggest they are over simplistic in a business setting. They would suggest that traditional models of leadership offer little consideration of extra elements such as the extent of the impact that changes in leadership behaviours can have on an outcome.

So, in the above example when a leader demonstrates strategic thinking, this is leadership behaviour. However, this leadership behaviour has a leadership impact of a clear business strategy which is communicated and disseminated to teams within the organisation which will manifest itself in terms of higher productivity (which is the leadership result).

The knock-on effect

The reality is that leadership behaviour creates a knock-on effect which has an impact that in turn affects outcomes and it is this subtle but important element of impact that is missing from the traditional behavioural-outcome models.

We can see this in multiple examples. For instance, when a leadership behaviour changes from an autocratic to democratic leadership style this would have an effect (impact) on the environment that people work in, the issues that employees focus on, it can affect the way teams behave together and how decisions are made. This would eventually affect business outcomes. It is this knock-on effect (impact) from the original change in leadership behaviour that eventually changes business outcomes.

Similarly, changing a leadership style to an authentic leadership style, one which promotes an honest and ethical foundation is likely to directly impact on the expected values and ethics of the staff within the business, changing the working environment in which people work. The workforce may elevate themselves to a higher moral standard, working with increased effort and productively all of which may lead to positive changed business outcomes.

Models of leadership need to consider this extra dimension of impact to get a more holistic picture and establish how far leadership behaviour can actually affect outcomes. This suggests that traditional models are too simplistic and modern leadership models show a more indirect, multi-layered process, showing a more complicated picture than initially thought. Even then, this is not the whole story.

Gaining insight

Whilst recognising the importance of impact, today’s leaders are also required to have a certain level of personal insight into their character. The premise here is that insightful leadership creates leaders that are aware of their capabilities (and shortcomings), these leaders know how far their behaviours can impact on the people around them, and they also understand how far they can manipulate their behaviours for maximum impact for optimal outcomes.

Insightful leaders can adapt themselves to create opportunistic environments in which their business can thrive. If mastered, insightfulness can lead to a competitive advantage, a topic that is touched upon in this month’s podcast on changing leadership styles in increasingly ambiguous and complex work environments.

Leaders never operate alone

Understanding the extent that leaders’ behaviour can impact upon the people and processes around them may prove to be essential to understand why outcomes may (or may not) materialise as anticipated. Some leadership consultancies work with leaders to recognise how impactful different behaviour styles can work with different personalities (leaders and subordinates), on different teams and in different situations. They also help leaders to increase their self-awareness, flexibility and agility to create the most optimal outcomes and competitive advantages for their businesses.

Context, context, context

Even in a leadership models that include the element of impact (behaviour-impact- outcome) context matters.

In today’s increasingly complex and ambiguous work environments, it might appear that leadership changes are slow or seemingly inconsequential, but often extenuating contextual circumstances (such as uncertain economic environments or changing political landscapes) may be impacting the effects of the process, hindering the extent that changed leadership behaviour can have an impactful effect on outcomes. Remaining contextually savvy, a skilful and insightful leader will be able to recognise the changes in their environment and adapt their behaviour accordingly to create the necessary impacts required for success.

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