Is Your Leadership on Auto-Pilot? - Michelle Gibbings

The cockpit of an airplane with two people sitting in it

Many years ago, when I was travelling in the US, I came across the story of an older couple who were on holiday with their large Recreational Vehicle (RV), what in Australia we’d call a Motorhome. It was the first time they’d taken the RV out and seeing the cruise control function, they interpreted that to mean self-driving. They put the RV into cruise-control mode and then went to the back of the vehicle to make a cup of coffee. Thankfully, they weren’t badly injured when the vehicle ran off the road.

You might scoff and think, ‘How is that possible?’ Yet, many leaders take a similar approach to how they lead.

Leaders often have their playbook of ideas and strategies, pulling out that ‘go-to’ approach when they feel it’s needed, thinking it’s worked in the past and will work again. In doing this, they effectively put their leadership approach on auto-pilot. They then get surprised when things don’t go to plan.

New Environment, Aligned Approach
Various studies report that 35% to 40% of senior hires fail within their first 18 months. The statistics are higher for lower-level roles.

A global talent management survey of 5,000 hiring managers and 20,000 new employees over three years found that only 19 per cent of new hires achieve success.

As author Professor Michael Watkins writes in his brilliant book The First 90 Days, “Transitions are periods of opportunity, a chance to start afresh…But they are also periods of acute vulnerability, because you lack established working relationships and a detailed understanding of your new role”.

Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all endeavour because context matters.

Know Your Context
Context is crucial in leadership. A decision-making approach that works well in one situation may not work in another.

For example, a leader who excels in a start-up environment, characterised by uncertainty and the need for rapid decision-making, may struggle in a more established organisation where processes and protocols are highly valued.

As well, success requires you to assess the unique needs and challenges of the workplace and to adapt your leadership style accordingly. This requires a deep understanding of the organisation’s culture, values, and goals, as well as the broader industry trends and market dynamics.

For example, an organisation may have as one of its key cultural attributes a focus on creativity and challenging the status quo, while a different organisation may place more value on having a culture that values tradition.

Adapt to Changing Circumstances
The only constant in today’s working world is change. Market trends shift, new competitors emerge, and technological advancements redefine industries and organisations.

An organisation that is successful one day can eventually find itself struggling. This HBR article explains how many companies start to stall at some point. Sharing a series of examples, the authors, Matthew Olson and colleagues, highlight the reasons based on three categories: external factors, strategic factors, and organisational factors.

When leaders confront such challenges, they must be ready to take a different approach. They’ll likely need to be agile, able to pivot their strategies, and willing to adapt how they lead. This might mean re-evaluating organisational goals, restructuring teams, or investing in new technologies. It also means being open to feedback and willing to make tough decisions.

At its core, it’s about being an adaptive leader.

Academics Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky pioneered the concept of adaptive leadership; an approach that’s founded on the principles of emotional intelligence, learning and growth, organisational justice, and ethical behaviour.

In their work, they distinguish between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Technical challenges usually have an easily identified cause and effect. While they may not be easy to solve, a leader can usually resolve them based on current knowledge, resources, and expertise.

In contrast, adaptive challenges are far more systemic and complex because the root cause is not easy to identify. Indeed, what is assumed to be the issue can turn out to be false. Consequently, resolving issues of this nature requires collaboration, new ways of thinking, a willingness to challenge assumptions and beliefs, and potentially the need to make significant and even, radical changes. In seeking to navigate the complexity, the adaptive leader spends time observing events and processes to identify potential hypotheses. These hypotheses are then tested to uncover the best intervention and way to proceed.

As Robert J Anderson and William Adams wrote in their book, Mastering Leadership, “The Leadership Imperative is simply this: The development of leadership effectiveness must, at a minimum, keep pace with the rate of change and the rate of escalating complexity.” Leaders can never stop learning and adapting how they lead.

Create New Leadership Habits
As I’ve written about before, over 40% of what we do every day is based on habits. We take action and do something because it’s what we always do. It’s a decision with little to no deliberate thought or consideration.

We can all have bad leadership habits that don’t help us or the people we serve through our leadership.

To be effective, you want to turn off the auto-pilot and move into deliberate decision-making mode. This means being deliberately thoughtful about the kind of leader you want to be.

Start by asking yourself – Why should anyone be led by me? Answering that question will help you uncover who you are as a leader. You will also want to get direct and constructive feedback on your leadership gaps. When you are clear on your leadership attributes and the gap between how you think you lead and how you actually lead, you are on a better path to being the leader you can be.

Recognise Your Team Individually
Lastly, your team is a collection of individuals, and what they need from you to thrive and be their best will differ. I’ve frequently seen situations of how leaders apply a templated approach to their team members, and fail to recognise the specific and different needs that people have.

While you want to be consistent and fair in how you work and treat your team members, you also need to recognise that they need different things from you. Be ready to know them and support each of them in a unique way so they can succeed.

As you think about finding your leadership ‘on’ switch, reflect on the wise words of Harvard Business School researcher, Tsedal Neeley. In her podcast interview with Brené Brown and Paul Leonardi she described leadership as follows: “Leadership is about poetry and plumbing….as leaders need to understand the mechanics, the plumbing. But we have to understand the importance of poetry in order to engage people’s hearts and minds. And leadership is a huge responsibility. It’s a science. It’s a skill…..and it’s learned”.



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