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The credible leader

Tim Palmer
PA Consulting Group
Evaluation Centre
1 March 2009 

The current economic climate makes strategic leadership difficult because it is hard to tell what the future holds.  Will the organisation be healthy?  Will it be half or twice the size? Times like these test leaders. There is an inevitability that the rules will change rapidly, and that key stakeholders and agendas will shift with them.  Different economic scenarios that organisations face can impact the role that leaders need to take.

But leadership in organisations is not just strategic, and it is not just the remit of Chief Executives; it is the concern of everyone from first line supervisor, through the management levels to the C-Suite. So how should leaders behave?  Effective leadership in 2009 is a function of credibility – the way in which those who are led see and perceive the leader on a day-to-day basis. Leaders who are credible will be:

Communicating – When morale and motivation is challenged, the conspiracy theorists rule. Therefore, open and honest, two-way communication is vital to tell people exactly what is going on and to get feedback from the organisation. Today’s leaders must recognise that difficult messages must be delivered face-to-face, however much time that takes. E-mail is not an acceptable option.

Being responsible – Credible leaders lead by example and should be seen to making the same sacrifices that they require of their organisation. The value of gesture and behaviour should not be underestimated, and conversely, where leaders are perceived to act to excess, they lose the confidence of their people and their peers.

Engaging – Excellent communication is essential but it is not enough. The lessons of effective change tell us that employees need to be engaged in building the future, even when they know they may not be a part of that future. Most employees have a sense of organisational belonging and this focus on shared goals can be harnessed to involve people in an organisation’s restructuring, cost reduction, customer initiatives and performance improvement.

Driving – It is easy to drop into a reactive mode, especially when the external environment is changing so rapidly. Credible leaders need to plan and manage change to stay one step ahead of the market through creating and communicating the ‘vision’ and business benefits that will be delivered.

Innovating – Leaders must encourage the development of ideas and new thinking within the organisation in order to challenge existing paradigms and ways of working. Flexibility, speed of reaction to new market opportunities and converting ideas into products and services before anyone else does are all critical to success. Encouraging the free flow of ideas at a time when you are demanding focus and discipline is not easy, and leaders at all levels need to grasp and manage the resulting paradox.

Being courageous – Decision making is simple when you can predict cause and effect. The immediate aftermath of the collapse of Lehmans saw almost paralysis in the decision making processes in some sectors. Credible leaders need to have the courage to make progress based on instinct and imperfect data.

Living lean values – Lean is about so much more than process reengineering and cost cutting. By themselves, these activities can suppress the inherent energy in an organisation.  Visible lean leadership - being out on the floor, sharing information and involving the team - helps sustain long-term benefits from cost reduction and quality initiatives. 

Energising - Leaders play a huge role in energising the organisation, both positively and negatively. Positive energy is vital to delivering the shared goals, ideas, products and services and the organisational change required in the new reality. Enthusiasm, pride, passion and excitement are the emotions which leaders need to generate.

Leadership in 2009 is demanding and difficult. It needs to be conducted with an authenticity that people will believe, and requires emotional intelligence and considerable resilience to navigate the uncertainties of the market (in concert with employees) to achieve goals which were unthinkable less than two years ago. This is within the grasp of the credible leader.

Tim Palmer is head of HR transformation consulting

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