A personal model of professional leadership

By John Langhorne/Consulting

Not-so-many years ago, I was at a professional meeting and an academic who had been studying leadership for more than 35 years reviewed the literature. I believe he had about 57 PowerPoint slides, enough to bore the most attentive soul. Looking over all those models at leisure, asking myself what might be useful to my clients, I was deeply disappointed by how little practical advice the models communicated; mostly theories best served to assure tenure.

However, one model struck me as compelling. What might be called a four-factor approach by Warren Bennis:

“Taking charge of your own learning is a part of taking charge of your life, the sine qua non of becoming an integrated person.” – Warren Bennis

The strength of his perspective on leadership is he casts it into a very personal mold that makes sense to the individual, a mold we can get our hearts and minds around and translate into day-to-day behavior.

After studying a sample of leaders, he concluded leaders manage four things: attention, meaning, trust and self. The elegant simplicity and economy of his model is its greatest strength.

Mr. Bennis states that the first leadership competence is the management of attention through a set of intentions or a vision with sense of direction. For example, I once worked with the owner/CEO of a small company who had several individually-capable senior managers, but they functioned poorly as a management team. They often seemed to work at cross-purposes. Watching his management meetings, the reason became clear. At each meeting he would present his 17 top priorities for the company. Each manager would select the two to three priorities he/she thought most important and all were selecting different choices based on their needs. What a great way to make a group of capable people look like uncoordinated fools. He was not managing their attention by presenting a simple, clear message of over-arching importance to the company.

The area of employee motivation is a nebulous one. Everyone seems to have an idea about what motivates employees. Most of these ideas are based on each person’s experience and perspective. Many of these beliefs are wrong or naïve. However, philosophy and research suggest people are basically existential: they want to find meaning in their lives; they want to be proud of where they work.

Leaders understand they must manage meaning in order to align people within the organization. A skilled leader I helped with a turn-around adopted a simple but powerful message that became his mantra: focus and fix. Everyone who interacted with him understood that the conversation or meeting would end with the question: what was he/she doing to focus and fix.

In a knowledge-driven economy we manage through trust, not force. Trust is essential to running a high-performance organization. The management of trust is the third aspect of leadership. The main driver of trust is what I call the say/do ratio. People would much rather follow individuals who are consistent and predictable in their behavior, even if they disagree with them, than someone who is unpredictable. The say/do ratio: “Do what you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it,’’ is a reliable and accurate measure of consistency as well as a powerful communication tool. In your own workspace, ask yourself, “Who do I trust and mistrust the most?” For many of us the say/do ratio defines the difference. Many, including myself, consider the say/do ratio a simple and fundamental measure of personal integrity. It can also be a powerful competitive advantage for an organization seeking to build close relationships with customers, clients or patients.

Reflecting on these first three aspects of leadership, one is struck at how interrelated they are. Mr. Bennis wisely integrates this perception in his fourth aspect of leadership: the management of self. The most important personal question for leaders is: Are you walking your talk?

How are you deploying your most precious commodity, your time? Are you communicating direction by managing attention? Are you building motivation by defining meaning? Are you developing trust through superb communication? In brief, are you managing yourself? Food for thought.