Leadership: It’s Personal!

 

David Ivers is from Sydney, Australia. He is a qualified Primary and Secondary School Teacher. In total, he has served on school leadership teams for 16 years in senior leadership roles.

“So let me ask you again. How can I help?”

Dr Max Goodwin New Amsterdam TV Series (Pilot Episode)

In the pilot episode of the TV series “New Amsterdam”, Dr. Max Goodwin asks this question at the start of his tenure as Medical Director of New Amsterdam Hospital in New York. The setting, his first full staff meeting. The hospital had been through a period of instability with medical directors coming and going at a whim. Add to that the reputation that Dr. Max Goodwin comes with, one of a turnaround, change agent, not afraid to move staff on that aren’t contributing toward the vision. Consequently, he enters this new arena, with the staff he is looking for buy-in from, suspicious of him and his motives. Nonetheless, Dr. Goodwin’s question is a good one and a mantra that his senior staff start to adopt throughout the pilot episode. It’s good because it demonstrates that Dr. Goodwin needs a hospital staff to listen to him, to achieve his vision for the hospital. It is a recognition that to lead this hospital or any organization for that matter, requires ‘Personal Leadership’. In the ‘Transition Decade’ the extent to which a person exhibits ‘Personal Leadership’ may be a critical determinant of career success, in any organization, especially government agencies such as hospitals and schools.

The questions of course are:

  • What is ‘Personal Leadership’?
  • Why do some leaders have it and some appear not to?

Obviously, notions of Personal Leadership will bring by way of implication at least, thoughts and discussions about its nexus with Personality. 

“Personal leadership is about visibility—with all members of the institution. Great CEOs roll up their sleeves and tackle problems personally. They don’t hide behind staff. They never simply preside over the work of others. They are visible every day with customers, suppliers, and business partners. Personal leadership is about being both strategic and operational. Show me a business executive who doesn’t completely understand the financial underpinnings of his or her business and I’ll show you a company whose stock you ought to sell short. Personal leadership is about communication, openness, and a willingness to speak often and honestly, and with respect for the intelligence of the reader or listener. Leaders don’t hide behind corporate double-speak. They don’t leave to others the delivery of bad news. They treat every employee as someone who deserves to understand what’s going on in the enterprise. Most of all, personal leadership is about passion…It’s personal. They care a lot about what they do, what they represent, and how they compete. Passion. As a student going through Harvard Business School, I would never have guessed that passion would be the single most important element of personal leadership.” (Gerstner, Louis V. (2005). Who says elephants can’t dance? Inside IBM’s historic turnaround. (eBook). New York: Harper Collins eBooks. P163-164).

So, Gerstner contends that the identifying markers of Personal Leadership are:

  • Visibility – to all stakeholders 
  • Strategic – in thinking
  • Operational – in thinking and practice
  • Communication – speaking regularly, honestly, simply and respectfully 
  • Passion – caring about what you personally and professionally do.

 

Often a ‘charismatic leader’ will seem to just have ‘Personal Leadership’, they just seem to know what to do, when to say something, how to act and importantly know why.
DAVID IVERS
It’s a fairly comprehensive list. I would add to Gerstner’s list, Integrity and Ethical practice in leadership. In other words, living what you are wanting others to commit to and ensuring that how you practice leadership is ethical, not what we can legally do but rather doing what we ought to do, especially if your organization is an industry leader. This is to an extent passion employing the principles of good corporate governance, which always includes transparency.

Often a ‘charismatic leader’ will seem to just have ‘Personal Leadership’, they just seem to know what to do, when to say something, how to act and importantly know why. There is some truth in the notion that some leaders do these things instinctively. In this scenario, their personality fuels their Personal Leadership. This doesn’t mean that Personal Leadership can’t be learned and thus taught. Obviously, it can! There are some standout traits that people look for in their leaders. James Kouzes and Barry Posner surveyed people in: 1987, 1995, 2002, 2007 and 2012, to identify and rank the ‘Characteristics of Admirable Leaders”. On each occasion, 60% of respondents identified the same top four characteristics. Such a recurring theme in such a longitudinal study should really go to the heart of what Personal Leadership involves. 

“What people most look for in a leader (a person whom they would be willing to follow) has been constant over time.  And our research documents that this pattern does not vary across countries, cultures, ethnicities, organizational functions and hierarchies, genders, levels of education, and age groups.  For people to follow someone willingly, the majority of constituents believe the leader must be:

  • Honest 
  • Forward-looking 
  • Competent 
  • Inspiring

(Kouzes, James. M., Posner, Barry.  Z. (2012). The leadership challenge:  how to make extraordinary things happen in organizations (5th Edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. P35)

To some extent, it could be argued that this ‘Top 4 List of Characteristics of Admirable Leaders’ are in fact a list that most reasonable people would have in a ‘Top 4 List of Chacteristics of Admirable People’. Personal Leadership very much reflects the values set of the individual in question. It equally is reflective of the values that the organization holds, consciously or unconsciously. Put another way, the ‘Top 4’ list provided by Kouzes and Posner is just as much a ‘Top 4 List of Characteristics of an Admirable Organization’. If values are the reason for action, then ultimately every form of human endeavor occurs because of values held. Organizations, which includes Government agencies, are forms of human endeavor and thus act out from a values base. If this were not the case, why then do so many organizations spend so much money identifying their ‘Vision and Mission Statement’ closely followed by their ‘Values or Beliefs Statement’? 

A good example of this can be seen in the Draft Strategic Plan for Boston Public Schools.

Mission:

Every child in every classroom in every school receives what they need.

Vision:  

A nation-leading, student-centered public-school district providing an equitable and excellent well rounded education that prepares every student for success in college, career and life.   

Values:  

Joy, Unity, Inclusion, Collaboration, Equity. 

Boston Public Schools (2020). Strategic Planning Draft 2020-2025 for Presentation to the Boston School Committee (January 15, 2020). P4

If Joy, Unity, Inclusion, Collaboration and Equity are core values for a school system such as Boston Public Schools, it makes sense then that the leaders in that school system, especially Principals, would have a Personal Leadership style that promotes joy and unity, is inclusive, works in a collaborative manner and is conscious of the principles of equity and how this impacts excellence. How they communicate this to their school community will be critical. It requires it to be found in word and followed up in deed or action, to confirm in the eyes of the stakeholders that these are values which truly are held, not mere rhetoric.

The same can be seen in the Vision, Mission and Values, stated by the Los Angeles County Public Works Department in their 2017 Strategic Plan.

Vision: 

To become the most trusted public agency in the region.

Mission:

We deliver regional infrastructure and services improving the quality of life for more than 10 million people in Los Angeles County.

Values:

Safety, Community, Workforce Development, Transparency, Inclusivity, Innovation.

Los Angeles County Public Works Department. (2017). Strategic Plan (2017). P.5.

You would expect that a Public Works Department would place a high value on safety. It should be a core part of their business. The word ‘Public’ in the name ‘Public Works Department’ suggests that engagement with the community they seek to serve should also be a priority. Placing value on developing their workforce suggests that the Department values people and having their people become the best iteration of themselves they can be. Transparency should be expected in any government agency wanting to adhere to the principles of good governance. Inclusivity covers a wide range of things to harness a diversity of ideas, backgrounds and experiences, which may help to bring better solutions to problems that the community might look to a ‘Public Works Department’ to solve. In the process, the local community may well expect them to be innovative and using the best technology in what they do. 

In short, there is nothing unexpected in the values enunciated by either Boston Public Schools or Los Angeles County Public Works Department. One talks of collaboration, the other on workforce development. Both values hint at the type of Personal Leadership an outsider looking in might expect to see. Likewise, words such as unity, joy, inclusion, safety, highlights the need for leadership generally and Personal Leadership specifically to ensure the physical and  ‘Psychological Safety’ of all, including the leader themselves. On this it is worth reading: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth by Professor Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School.  

As a Leader, this writer has always adopted the mantra that my job as a leader is to PREPARE PEOPLE. Over the years it has morphed into a handy acronym and model for key markers in the exercise and display of Personal Leadership. The expected markers in my PREPARE PEOPLE model of Personal Leadership are:

PREPARE PEOPLE Model of Personal Leadership 

Presence to staff and stakeholders

Respectful 

Engagement

Personal and Professional development (emphasized and modeled by leaders)

Articulate in communication

Relational

Excellence

Passionate 

Enthusiastic

Open to new ideas, 

Purposeful in all that is done

Listens attentively 

Explores (Inner Self and Outer Work) and Evolves

Underpinned by Personal and Professional Integrity.

(PREPARE PEOPLE – Personal Leadership Model Developed by David Ivers (2020)).

The PREPARE PEOPLE model of Personal Leadership is meant to be a ‘common-sense’ approach to Personal Leadership, developed and used by myself, in the various leadership roles I have held over the decades. As an acronym, it reminds us that the job of leadership is to influence people and processes. Without people you don’t have teams, people or processes to influence. It is not intended to be exhaustive but to rather hit the big notes in the ‘leadership score’.  It also reminds us of the importance of values in an organization. 

The values of an organization gives life to the organization and goes a long way in keeping it relevant and faithful to its vision and mission. The values system of the organization may be a tension point for some. That is to be expected and this creative tension is where organizational life and renewal might well be found, as Sociologist, Talcott Parsons, reminds us.

“Every social system is in some degree malintegrated, which means that there is always a problem of the discrepancy between institutionally legitimized expectations and the actual outcome of events. There is always a problem of what attitude should be taken to what in terms of the current value system…The moral economy of a human society never has perfectly balanced books.” 

(Parsons.T 1951 The Social System. London: Collier- Macmillan. P164)

When Personal Leadership is misaligned to the stated values, mission and vision of the organization, the mismatch can create a confused and at times chaotic workplace, especially when the Personal Leadership comes from somebody with a charismatic personality. Here is where the notion of people ‘buying into the person before they buy into the leader’ is self-evident. The caveat here of course is that the values of the organization may need to be challenged at times and that includes challenging the faithfulness of staff and of leaders to the stated values, vision and mission of the organization. 

Why is this important for job seekers and people looking for promotion alike? Underpinning your Personal Leadership is the extent to which your values sit in harmony with that of your organization, such as a Government agency. The extent to which the alignment of your values system to the organization’s occurs, will go a long way to determining your ability to support the vision and mission of your organization. Personal Leadership is where conflict management is likely to be found. The extent to which you can bring others along with you on the journey that the organization is on, reflects your Personal Leadership and will determine whether or not you meet the most essential criteria, no matter what you apply for. Simply, are you a good fit for the organization? If the answer is, not today, look at how you PREPARE PEOPLE. It may make the world of difference in this ‘Transition Decade’.

As you move forward and allow each day to be a better iteration of yourself than the previous day, so too it is likely that the same holds true of your Personal Leadership. 

Nothing endures but personal qualities.”

Walt Whitman (1891) Song of the Broad Axe.

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