Leadership Effectiveness: The Importance of Learning Agility and Authenticity

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Identifying high potential people is vital for any organization and current performance is often taken as an important indicator of future potential. However, a study conducted by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2005 found that 71% of high performers have limited potential at the next level. To gain a better understanding of Leadership Effectiveness we need to look more closely at the Performance Potential Matrix and the concept of Learning Agility. New studies raise far-reaching questions concerning how best to assess potential, and the extent to which Talent can be developed through appropriate training.

The Characteristics Contributing to High Potential

It is clear that Current Performance is not a reliable measure of Future Potential. As an alternative, many organizations have started to assess Learning Agility, which is regarded as an important predictor of longer-term capability. This is linked to the view that the ability to learn from experience is central to what makes and develops expert leaders. The model is also supported by research on Cognitive Flexibility, which involves:

• ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge in response to radically changing situational demands

• transfer of knowledge and skills beyond the initial learning situation

• speed of response – and effectiveness of adaptation in response to change

The Corporate Leadership Report found that although current performance may be strong, future potential is often limited by short-comings in Ability, Aspiration and Engagement.

In this context, it is possible that Aspiration may be low because of poor Motivation, which can result when Personal Strengths are not being used effectively. We also know that Engagement can be undermined by a range of factors that reduce commitment to the organisation. Both Motivation and Engagement are important to high productivity and can be weakened by issues within the organization. However, the concept of Learning Agility provides a separate ‘point of reference’ that is particularly relevant when assessing Ability and profiling High Potential attributes.

Four main strands of Learning Agility have been identified:

• Mental (Cognitive): the capacity to deal with complexity and make connections

• People (Authenticity): personal insights and conviction about needs and requirements

• Change (Ambiguity): tolerance of ambiguity and willingness to explore & develop opportunities

• Results (Impact): delivery focus, achieving personal impact and motivating others

Learning Agility is supported by “Balanced Processing” of information, which is also one of the cornerstones of Authenticity. More effective professionals, including specialist staff and team leaders, make allowance for their own subjectivity by being responsive to feedback, and applying this feedback to positive effect. They see their Role in the context of the bigger picture, with awareness of what others are doing, and appreciation of Role Interdependence. However, Learning Agility also implies that leaders are able to draw on the Personal Strengths required to respond to unexpected challenges, demonstrate personal conviction, and persuade others.

In the words of Louis Pasteur, Chance Favours the Prepared Mind. It is therefore not surprising that ‘star performers’ are skilled in understanding the expectations of others and managing important Role Relationships. They scan the environment with an awareness of possibilities, which may include both opportunities and threats.

Profiling Success Factors at Work

Competencies should describe the attributes and behavior associated with superior performance and take account of the ‘drivers’ contributing to Personal Strengths. Effective alignment of Strengths is central to the Performance Potential Matrix, highlighting both current effectiveness, and the potential to adapt and respond positively to increased demands. It is worth noting that the work of Henry Murray (1938), relating to distinctive patterns of behaviour, is still relevant in understanding the links between Personal Strengths and role-related competencies.

Objective analysis of current performance can provide insight into attributes that contribute to future potential. By way of example, a 360 degree feedback study of UK nurses and midwives was completed in 2010. Initial interviews with experienced, senior-level staff suggested eight competencies and more than 60 important behaviors. Following testing of this model, using the 360 data, analysis highlighted five clearly defined factors based on 40 ‘core statements’ that were most closely attuned to the Role and Context. These midwifery and nursing competencies included:

• Factor 1: patient / client engagement

• Factor 2: team leading / communication

• Factor 3: setting clear direction

• Factor 4: focusing on performance

• Factor 5: communicating with doctors

It becomes evident that the demands of some situations e.g. taking control of situations and setting clear direction, requires direct access to Personal Strengths. (This focus on activities also serves to highlight how Emotional Intelligence or “EQ” is translated into key patterns of work behaviour). The competencies that emerge can be linked to effectiveness in handling Critical Incidents that differentiate more-effective performance. The 360 degree feedback highlight strengths, but also weaknesses that can undermine current performance, and the potential for more senior roles.

The study supported the view that high performance behaviour needs to be viewed in terms of role and context. There is also value in being able to target specific questions to gain relevant feedback from key groups. This reduces the time required by respondents to complete 360 feedback. At the same time, written feedback can be more role and situation specific (i.e. tailored to different groups of respondent). Shortcomings in performance caused by a lack of insight can then be addressed by coaching and development. The potential benefit of this approach is discussed in more detail in the following section.

Intelligent 360 degree feedback, which targets specific questions to key groups of respondent, can play a significant part in developing essential role insight and increased self-awareness.

How a Training Program Increased Productivity by 25%

Understanding Success Factors can link directly to improvements in Performance and Productivity. An important study at Bell Labs, reported in the Harvard Business Review (1993), highlighted significant differences in the productivity of average and ‘Star Performers’. These differences were not explained by critical reasoning ability or personality traits (and it is likely these would have been assessed previously). However, the Star Performers displayed more-effective work strategies, notably in terms of demonstrating initiative and maintaining contact and dialogue with customers. A subsequent productivity improvement process raised awareness of Success Factors based on different patterns of work behaviour. After twelve months this achieved a remarkable 25% improvement in productivity.

It is very important that any Talent Management process builds on awareness of Success Factors. This means that competency models must be tuned-in to what is really important. There is therefore real value in strengthening competency profiling by combining the more usual interviews, and review of Critical Incidents, with quantitative analysis based on 360 degree feedback. If competencies and statements of behaviour are valid, they should make sense to the people who are using them to provide feedback. They will then ‘map’ onto the competencies. Analysis of 360 degree feedback ratings can be particularly useful in identifying the questions that are relevant to different groups.

What Are the Building Blocks of Authenticity?

Authenticity has been described as the unobstructed operation of one’s time, or core self, in one’s daily enterprise. For a leader, this means a sense of Personal Conviction about overall requirements, which is essential in developing a wider sense of shared purpose. Alongside Learning Agility, we can identify Authenticity as the second element in the Performance Potential Matrix that helps identify High-Potentials.

Looking more closely at Authentic Leadership, we see that this involves demonstrating personal conviction and identifying with an activity. It is also about developing a sense of shared purpose, which involves creating a sense of Authenticity in others. However, this vital element of Authentic Leadership is often overlooked. The concept can be contrasted with Transformational Leadership, which emphasizes use of Charisma and a Compelling Vision to overcome people’s ‘self interest’ in order to gain commitment to organizational goals. This may work in short-term turnaround situations but is of less long-term value to the organisation. Indeed, there can be real dangers in following charismatic leaders with a compelling vision.

Four core elements support development of Authenticity, which is associated with more-effective leaders:


…understand their unique talents, strengths, sense of purpose, core values, beliefs and desires… are open to experience, and receptive to feedback that supports the process of gaining this insight.

Balanced Processing

…make allowance for their subjectivity and are therefore inclined and able to consider multiple sides of an issue and multiple perspectives as they assess information in a relatively balanced manner.

Relational Authenticity

…strive to achieve openness and truthfulness in their close relationships, using selective self-disclosure to build trust and appear genuine in their interaction with others.

Authentic Behavior / Action

…respond to situations in a way that is appropriate, in the context of their role, whilst recognizing their core values and, as far as possible, acting in a way that is consistent with these values

Authentic Leadership has a strong operational focus and is very much concerned with results and outcomes. It is about achieving maximum benefit by harnessing the latent energy of positive role relationships. Increasingly, a leader needs to consider how best to manage a number of different relationships, each of which can impact on outcomes. These ‘contact groups’ may include the individual’s immediate manager, colleagues, customers/clients, key contractors/suppliers, other business partners, and stakeholders.

Taking Action to Increase Leadership Effectiveness

There is growing interest in the concept of Distributed Leadership, but this is also likely to be more successful when associated with Authenticity. Leadership skills need to be supported by self-awareness, and particularly understanding of how current patterns of work behaviour can impact on the role-related expectations of others. Cascaded Leadership, with delegated authority, is increasingly seen as an important element in building an organization’s capability to meet future challenges. However, this requires managers to create the ‘shared purpose’ required to align employees’ behaviour with role requirements. This is an essential step that contributes to effective leadership performance.

In summary, recent developments highlight more effective ways to identify Potential and build on Strengths. These insights are relevant at both an individual and ‘collective’ level, where new psychometrics can include group-based reports that support Training Needs Analysis. Whilst a number of the attributes contributing to Learning Agility and Authentic Leadership may be familiar, what is particularly noticeable is the growing emphasis on Managing Role Relationships.

Learning Agility and Authentic Leadership are central to the long-term success of modern organizations. The links to Management of Role Relationships also underline the importance of Self-Review and ‘focused feedback’ in unlocking potential at work.

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