In a previous article entitled “Leadership Drives Success”, I wrote about my definition of leadership, which I have honed over the years. Many people sent me very gracious comments praising that definition. Others sent equally gracious comments making very pertinent additions and/or recommendations. That definition of leadership is really only part of the story. Perhaps this article can best be referred to as the rest of the story.
In 1982, after conducting hundreds of interviews, administering thousands of surveys and examining dozens of case studies, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner identified a set of five fundamental practices common to extraordinary leadership achievement. The book outlining their research (The Leadership Challenge) was published in 1987 and has been used by countless organizations and individuals over the past three decades to train existing and aspiring leaders in the “Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders.™” A few years later, Stephen R. Covey published the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. According to Covey, his research examined some 200 years of success literature from numerous writers and thinkers as part of his doctoral studies.
When stepping back and looking at these habits, practices and commitments from a bit of a different angle, both authors describe actions that leaders take relative to three specific domains or entities – self, others and things. In fact, Covey himself organizes his seven habits into those that enable “private victory” (self, things), those that generate “public victory” (others, things) and the practice that contributes most to “renewal” (self). At the end of the day, both works have stood the test of time and continue to be used by individuals and organizations all around the world.
In the early 1990s, heavily influenced by these, and other works, I embarked on some leadership research of my own while serving on the faculty at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. At that time, graduates of our health professions programs often rapidly ascended the career ladder in hospitals and health care organizations across the state. In fact, it was quite common for a young professional to quickly assume a supervisory role, become a department director or occasionally even a hospital administrator within a few short years following graduation. The issue was that they had little or no leadership preparation to do so. In order to address this deficit, I set out to create a course for graduating seniors that would introduce them to the basic concepts of leadership, supervision, team development, performance management and a number of other baseline leadership responsibilities.
In the mid 1990s, I began to conduct research into the differentiators of success for the top 1 percent of performers (among health care professionals), compared to those who make up the middle 50 percent of performers. This research led me into the creation of leadership competency models – observable behaviors that were compiled into specific models that could then be used for hiring, training, coaching, team development, performance management and etc.
As a result of that research, I was commissioned by senior executives of Acxiom Corporation to replicate my competency model research with IT professionals inside the company. Up until this point, all of the job roles, performance criteria and other HR systems at the company were predicated on a “skills-based” model, which was particularly problematic during a time when the half-life of all IT knowledge was about 14 months (or less).
During that research, I had the good fortune of coming across Robert E. Kelley’s book, How to be a Star at Work and Daniel Goleman’s, Working with Emotional Intelligence. Kelley outlined the process that he and his team perfected at Bell Labs to discover and validate the differentiators of star performance in the workplace. Once again, the differentiators outlined by Kelley and his team could be organized by their relation to the three specific domains of self, others and things. Goleman’s book, a follow-up to his more science-based work Emotional Intelligence, offered very practical guidance for the development of personal competence (self) and social competence (others). Both researchers further validated the working hypothesis we had begun developing – that specific observable actions or behaviors across at least three domains (self, others, things) are the differentiators of success between top performers and average performer, including leaders and individual contributors.
Standing on the shoulders of these giants, we were now equipped to expand our own research process for identifying these differentiating behaviors and building them into replicable competency models for our use. The research behind these seminal works was enough to convince us, and our stakeholders, that the true differentiation between excellence and mediocrity was what people DID … the ACTIONS they took, the BEHAVIORS they demonstrated. So, we set about devising our research process to uncover these observable behaviors.
That initiative proved to be both exhilarating and exhausting. For 18 months, our team worked. We began by surveying all leaders and all non-leaders in the company, asking them to identify the top performers across all locations. Once we vetted each list of nominees against the others, we were able to declare some 50 individuals, both leaders and non-leaders, as our research group – the universally recognized top performers of the company.
For the next several months, we engaged each of them in an extensive, recorded, behavioral-event interview where we ask them to tell us about very specific situations in which they had experienced the threat of failure but the outcome of success. The job of the interviewer during these discussions was to poke, prod and probe moving beyond the opinions of these top performers to identify their explicit actions and behaviors.
During this process, we were fortunate to collect over 120 success stories – actual case studies where these top performers took specific actions that led to success. When the job was finished, 34 unique and observable behaviors across eight distinct competencies were defined. Dubbed the “Acxiom Eight,” these competencies became the foundation of every job role in the company – from the entry-level data analyst to the CEO. And, they remained an integral part of the recruitment, selection, training, development and coaching programs of the company for over 15 years.
The outcome of our own research, combined with the research of those that had gone before us, created an epiphany of sorts that began to solidify a simple, yet profound, model of personal and interpersonal leadership. This model, when understood and consistently applied, resulted in meaningful and sustained success – whether serving as an individual contributor, a leader of small teams, or a leader of large organizations.
Throughout the next decade and a half, I began applying, adapting and honing this model with leadership audiences around the world. I was consistently teaching, training and coaching with the model in the U.S.; however, I expanded to groups in the U.K., France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Portugal in 2003 to 2005. From 2005 to 2009, I was able to work with numerous groups of leaders in China, Japan and Australia. From 2010 to 2013, I had the good fortune of leveraging the model with leadership teams in the Middle East, North Africa, Brazil and Latin America. Since 2013, I have been subjecting the model to scrutiny again in the US with multiple leadership teams from within various organizations and institutions, as well as across multiple business functions.
What has become clearly obvious, from years of personal experience and observation, validated by multiple researchers, authors and experts … and left unsaid (or at least unclarified) by most, is that sustained individual and leadership success requires a delicate balance between two very specific domains – results and relationships. Effective leaders, as well as effective individual contributors must maintain a delicate balance between the consistent delivery of results (things) and the consistent and deliberate development of strong relationship with those who help sustain those results (self & others). This led me to a critical discovery in my own understanding of leadership – which is that effective leadership requires a delicate balance, a balance between results and relationships. Refusal to understand and honor this balance will result in failure.
For instance, if one develops an overreliance on the results aspect of performance at the expense of relationships, she will likely experience wild success, very quickly. That is, until she alienates everyone around her who must help sustain those results (e.g. stakeholders, customers, superiors, team members, etc.)
If on the other hand, one places an extreme focus on relationships at the expense of results, he will be very popular. People will love him until he loses everyone’s respect because he does not deliver consistent results. In both cases, the scale becomes completely out of balance, thus drastically affecting performance.
At the end of the day, high performance leadership requires balance between the ability to manage things and lead people, including the ability to lead oneself. It is this reality that forms the foundation of truly effective leadership – the kind of leadership where high performance is sustained over a long period of time due to the proper balancing of results with relationships. More simply put, it is the form of leadership that produces results day after day after day, while building and maintaining strong, trust-based foundations of influence and relationship along the way. And that, my friends, is the rest of the story – leadership drives success, but effective leadership requires a delicate balance.
Dr. Jeff D. Standridge helps organizations and their leaders generate sustained results in the areas of innovation, strategy, profit growth, organizational effectiveness and leadership. He now serves as Chief Catalyst for the Conductor (ARConductor.org), is Co-founder of Cadron Capital Partners, and teaches Entrepreneurial Finance & Innovation Leadership at the University of Central Arkansas.