Closing the Leadership Performance Gap: A New Answer to a Persistent Problem

According to a steady pulse of executive surveys, most worry their teams do not have the leadership abilities to accomplish their strategic priorities. Other surveys show these executives’ concerns often become reality, as research indicates only 20 to 30 percent of strategic initiatives of succeed.

How do we break this pattern? How do we accelerate improvements in leadership performance that help companies achieve strategic goals?

Jeff Immelt, Chairman of the Board at GE, and credited with driving the transformation of one of the leading U.S. companies, provides guidance. In a speech at West Point, Immelt advised that today’s leaders become system thinkers comfortable with ambiguity. Immelt said he learned this lesson through his business experience, explaining that both attributes are critical to achieving success in our dynamic and turbulent world of work. We believe Immelt’s advice not only applies to leadership performance but to the actions taken to develop better leaders.

Before we outline an answer to our posed question, we should refresh ourselves on systems thinking. Systems thinking involves searching for patterns of inputs and outputs that interact over time. This is what Peter Senge called structures. We use systems thinking to understand how underlying structures interact and learn how the systems of which we are part really work. With this insight, we can change the structures that are not serving us well to create better, long-term solutions.

Our current research applies systems thinking to accelerating high performance leadership. We have learned that in high performance organizations’ leadership functions are synchronized. Doing some function well but not others is insufficient to achieving high performance.

Senior leaders perform the function of pulling up and across their organizations to clarify strategic priorities to pursue and how to pursue them. Mid-level leaders, drive customer-focused execution integrating their knowledge of strategic goals and the immediate environment. Mid-level leaders rely on their first level leader colleagues to drive implementation of the results with first level teams. The integration of these capabilities drive high performance across the critical tasks of direction-alignment, commitment -capability and execution and performance. If any part of this leadership system is not performing optimally, organizational results are compromised.

We also uncovered that high performers in senior and middle level leader roles exhibit leadership behaviors that differentiate them from under-performing colleagues. These behaviors convert clarity about who is doing what into results. And, there is more. The level of adoption of these behaviors is closely related to an organization’s status as “high performance.” In other words, high performance leadership is a feature of high performing organizations – they have a culture of leadership. This culture equips leaders with ability to drive strategic priorities around the resistance any planned change encounters on its journey to success.

In our upcoming book, we summarize the research sited above and show how to develop a system of high performance leadership.

Tom Rose, Ph.D., is the author of “Managing at the Leading Edge,” which will be published by McGraw Hill in 2017.

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