Who Cares About Vision? — with Joe Folkman

The word “Leadership” is almost always accompanied by the word “Vision.” In my Leadership Radio show today, I examined this question —

What is vision, what does it have to do with leadership, and why should you care?

My first guest was Joseph Folkman, Ph.D., president of Zenger Folkman. Joe’s latest book The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate (co-written by Joe, Jack Zenger and Scott Edinger, and due out in June 2009) — the follow-up to the bestseller The Extraordinary Leader — studies over 20,000 master motivators and reveals how you can become an inspiration to others.

Joe’s background is numbers-based — he studies leaders using a database, looking through 10 years of 360-degree assessments of business leaders.

Joe started down this path in graduate school, when he worked for one of the first companies to do 360-degree evaluations. Over time he collected hundreds of thousands of these assessments.

Joe has been able to analyze this dataset to — for example — compare the best and the worst leaders, and see what differentiates them. Joe and his team were able to identify 16 key behaviors related to leadership, and come to some conclusions about the nature of leadership.

Some of these conclusions about leadership have been counterintuitive.

Not all behaviors were different between the best and the worst leaders. For example, being on time to meetings is important, but it is not correlated with the quality of leadership. In other words, among the very good leaders and among the very bad leaders, there were roughly equal numbers who ran chronically late. It was not a differentiator between the best and worst leaders.

There are other behaviors that are hugely correlated with leadership excellence. These were the 16 behaviors that Joe and his team focused on.

As they looked at the very best leaders, Joe found that great leaders were not defined by the absence of weakness. Rather, it was the presence of strength — they were doing some things incredibly right. So Joe began to emphasize to his clients the importance of building strengths.

Joe and and his team grouped those 16 behaviors into several “tent-poles” holding up the “leadership tent”:

  • Character
  • Personal Capabilities — problem solving, innovation, and your own willingness to develop yourself
  • Results, and the ability to set goals and deliver results
  • People Skills, Collaboration, Developing Other People, and Teamwork
  • Motivating Others
  • Managing Change, having strategic vision, and managing interactions with the outside world

Once this model was created, Joe began collecting data using that model. Last year, he collected 150,000 responses on 6,000 individuals. Joe and his partner Jack did an analysis asking which of the 16 behaviors was the number one differentiating competency.

They found that there was one behavior that had greater correlation to superior leadership than any other. This was also rated by their direct reports as the most important competency to them. It was also the number one predictor of employee engagement. In other words, if you look at the employees that were the most engaged, this was the competency that most predicted that.

And that behavior was inspiring and motivating others.

When they are told that, leaders say “great… how can I become more inspiring?” This is a hard competency to develop skill on. A lot of people say this is just something you’re born with.

As Joe analyzed it, and looked at the data, covering 14,000 leaders and 183,000 assessments, he examined what the inspiring leaders did. He looked at what they used to create inspiration. And he found a series of 10 very clear behaviors — what would be called companion behaviors — that really enabled leaders to be more inspirational.

Number one was, to use emotion. To get people to feel, to get people to become passionate about their work and their jobs. Unfortunately, a lot of people think that they should show up without emotion. This could be based on the fear that emotional expression signals weakness. The reality is, if a leader can get people excited and engaged in sensing the importance of something, that turns out to be a critical skill in being a better leader.

A second one — another high correlation — is that inspiring leaders set stretch goals. They encouraged folks to go above and beyond what they thought they could do. Joe has encountered a lot of leaders who think it’s their job to protect people from doing too much. Everyone feels overworked so it seems counterintuitive that leaders would push people in this way, and yet he has found that most people are looking for a sense of accomplishment at work. When the leader ask someone to do a little more, and that person succeeds, that person experiences a burst of energy and enthusiasm.

People want to make a difference. People want to work on important tasks, and they want to perceive that they’re making progress on that work. It’s up to leaders to give people meaningful work. Leaders can create that sense of meaning.

A third one has to do with setting a clear vision. It is hard to set a clear vision, and a strategy, and help people understand it. However, being clear with people on where we are going and how we’re going to get there, and what direction we are going to take, is a critical piece of being an inspiring leader.

There are some key behaviors around developing strategic vision.

One of them has to do with knowing what customers want and need. What is going on in customers’ minds? How is that likely to change in the next few years? How do our current customers use our products today?

Another has to do with innovation. How can we improve on the way we deliver results?

A third critical element of strategic vision is to have strong analytical and problem-solving skills. In other words, it’s not enough to have a good idea. Rather, you need to have a good idea — that works. A good idea that actually pencils out. A good idea that can actually be implemented successfully. The analytical part shows that you’ve done the homework.

The other things that help people be more inspiring are:

  • the ability to communicate
  • innovation
  • developing other people
  • collaboration and teamwork

There are three core behaviors that are very critical — one of these is to be a role model. We’ve all seen leaders that are uninspiring because they ask you to do one thing, and they do the opposite.

A second is to champion change. A lot of leaders just get tired and are tired of change.

The third is taking initiative. The hardest thing in the world is to start from a stop. Once you get moving, it’s much easier.

Joe says, “We believe anybody can improve their leadership skill. In our data, we found that if a below average leader can simply get up to average, the productivity of their people will double.”

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