Are You a Progress-Making Leader?

By Phillip G. Clampitt and Robert J. DeKoch Print this article Print

Two specific abilities set progress-making leaders apart from others: a focused flexibility mind-set and effective communications.

Effective leaders preserve order amid change and change amid order. Why? To move their organizations forward in an environment that’s overflowing with hidden risks, uncertainties and possibilities.

Existing platforms—or ways of doing things—provide the order. New platforms induce the change. Platforms, such as established business practices or an operating system, are a set of closely bundled practices, activities or decisions that provide a springboard for action.

Scholars have consistently found that an organization’s ability to exploit current platforms tends to undermine its ability to explore new platforms, and vice versa. Progress-making leaders have the ability to do both and, more important, know when to shift course.

When Oprah Winfrey announced that she was ending her TV show, many devoted fans were distraught. But that decision represents the spirit of a progress maker. Why? Progress makers know when a particular platform, such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, has run its course and when it’s time to devote energy to other endeavors, such as The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Two specific abilities set progress-making leaders apart from others.

1. A Focused Flexibility Mind-set

King Solomon admonished us to “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise.” Are we to pay attention to the ant’s work ethic? Definitely. Are we to emulate the management structure of the anthill? Perhaps.

But the wise king might have been asking us to look at something even deeper. Ants have a remarkable ability to quickly forget old pathways and switch roles as the needs of the colony change. In other words, ants practice “focused flexibility”: They focus on present needs while maintaining the flexibility to meet future ones.

Maintaining both focus and flexibility tests the progress-making abilities of even the most skilled leaders. It means celebrating present success but not being overly influenced by the victory. It means quickly inspiring others to shift focus with little loss in productivity.

It also means teaching employees to partially forget the old ways of doing things, while maintaining those memories in case they are needed in the future. Leaders are more likely to lament “knowledge loss” than they are to praise purposeful forgetting. Yet, that is exactly what is necessary to maintain progress.

Leaders who champion focused flexibility create a mind-set about the dangers of too much exploring and too much refining. They teach others how to lean in the right direction at the proper time. And they possess the intellectual, emotional and motivational agility to adroitly shift between refining existing platforms and exploring new ones.

2. Effective Communications

When we asked leaders about the effectiveness of their communication systems, many responded by proudly listing the communication technologies used in their organization. They tweet, blog, have video conferences and so on. It’s thrilling and impressive—and often irrelevant.

In essence, these leaders believe that more technology equals enhanced communication effectiveness. Maybe. Maybe not.

Effective communication does not boil down to securing the next great technology. In the area of decision making, for example, we discovered that leaders can double the likelihood of employee support if they robustly communicate their decisions using a protocol that addresses these seven key questions:

•              What is the decision?

•              How was the decision made?

•              Why was the decision made?

•              What were the rejected alternatives to the announced decision?

•              How does the decision fit into the mission or vision?

•              How does the decision affect the organization?

•              How does the decision affect employees?

This protocol promotes deeper understanding by transparently revealing the factors considered during the decision-making process. The protocol underscores the importance of striking the right balance between the organization’s and the employees’ interests.

Employees always listen with ears tuned to two channels: WIFM (What’s in it for me?) and WIFO (What’s in it for the organization?). Leaders often make the mistake of broadcasting only on the WIFO channel.

In short, progress-making leaders have thick skin and sensitive ears. Thick skin proves useful as leaders cope with the inevitable criticism when refining an existing platform or shifting to a new one. Sensitive ears help progress-making leaders detect when to preserve order and when to champion change.

Phillip G. Clampitt and Robert J. DeKoch are the authors of Transforming Leaders into Progress Makers: Leadership for the 21st Century (Sage Publications, 2010). Clampitt is the Hendrickson Professor of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay. DeKoch is president and chief operating officer of The Boldt Co.   

This article was originally published on 2011-07-28
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