Have you ever come across leaders who say one thing, but do another? Who blow hot and cold, so you can never quite predict ‘which one’ you’ll be facing on a particular day? Who make a big play out of being transparent, but then you discover that they haven’t been 100% open in some of their transactions with you or others?
In our work we come across many kinds of leaders. Some inspire their teams, their organisation and us as outsiders. They are able to provide clear direction in a chaotic environment, and through the efforts of their team can inspire others to perform at peak levels. And this translates into organisation performance.
However, we also come across leaders who adopt a different style and outlook to drive their organisation to perform. They rely more heavily on their own perspective to lead; they’re less inclined to seek the input of others in formulating their direction of travel. These leaders exercise powerful command in their organisations. At its extreme this can be quite intimidating to others – conformity to a strategic directive becomes more an act of compliance than deep commitment.
So what can we learn from seeing these two very different styles at work, and where have they come from?
In the 1970s there were typically quite wide divides between those at the top of organisations and those lower down. Back then any agreement on overall direction was often an edict from the top and became a bargaining process between leaders and the shop floor.
In the ’80s the introduction of quality-improvement activities, borrowed from Japanese industry, gave way to a more collaborative approach to decision-making where small groups (quality circles) had the opportunity to continually improve and influence organisation outcomes.
By the ’90s there was recognition of the need to undergo wholesale rethinking of the way we work. Business process engineering and wide-scale computerisation paved the way for major disruption and realignment in organisations.
Then the noughties introduced e-commerce and the interconnected world – the global economy was well and truly upon us. Our lives are now full of constant change. It would be hard to count the seismic shifts that we’ve faced in the last ten years.
That’s the context in which we’re operating today: where organisations need to adapt quickly to change; where the goalposts shift (often); where it’s sometimes hard to know what the long-term game is and what our role, as individuals, is in that.
What is the best way to lead others in this complex operating zone? That’s where consistency comes in. When people are confused, overwhelmed or not sure where they’re going, a consistent leader can provide the focus and security people need in order to perform well.
Good leadership is like good parenting. The energy of the leader goes into creating the right conditions for the organisation to thrive and grow. Like good parents, good leaders set the overall framework (what’s OK, what’s not OK) and then provide the support to help their people flourish and deliver their desired goals.
In all the work that we do, we find that leadership consistency is a real differentiator in identifying leaders that are able to corral people in a particular direction, but also to inspire, motivate and enable their people to grow, thus building a more resilient and sustainable organisation.
By consistency we mean:
Consistency of purpose – agreeing an overall vision for the organisation (with input from senior players) and the key priorities that will enable the organisation to deliver – both short-term and long-term.
Consistency of actions – leaders acting in line with their values and really doing what they say and saying what they’re doing.
Leading by example – if leaders don’t deliver on their promises they can hardly expect their teams to raise their own performance. By demonstrating consistent follow-through and holding themselves and others to account leaders provides a powerful role-model of how high the bar is.
Building trust in the team – by being true to their word, being good at drawing out others’ opinions and being able to shape this into a collective ambition.
And what of the converse? Humans are adept at spotting inconsistency in the patterns we observe in our environment. It aids our survival. The minute a leader is deemed to be inconsistent they are sowing seeds of doubt in the minds of their people. Can they be relied upon next time? Will they react the same way or differently? Will direction change overnight?
As long as these types of questions are being asked by people in the organisation, they represent lost minutes of productivity, spent away from delivering strategic goals and instead speculating on the likely outcomes of future interaction with the leader. At best, this can cause the organisation to stutter. At worst it can fragment and severely hamper the organisation’s performance.
This is why we spend time and effort in encouraging consistency in leader behaviour as non-negotiable when it comes to leading change in complex organisations.