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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

Here Are Six Reasons "What Do Good Leaders Do?" Is a Useless Question. This Is What To Ask Instead.

Our focus on the definition of leadership is not just that it offers a theoretical model that more accurately explains reality. This redefinition (and the associated mental model) is important because it changes what we do in the real world. A different way of thinking allows us to choose different actions, which produce a different business outcome.

We need to stop asking, “What do good leaders do?” Redefining leadership is all about asking, “What does the group need?” The difference doesn’t seem big until it becomes clear how the first question limits the possible answers.

Here are the simple reasons why we can’t simply ask, “What do good leaders do?” along with specific changes in how we approach leadership.

Leadership is situational. When we look at other leaders’ actions, we’re assuming that we can apply the same tactic to our situation. At the very least, we need to tailor the tactic to our unique leadership approach, challenge, team, and environment. Many tactics aren’t relevant at all, and so we end up doing something useless or damaging. Basing our selection on the needs of the group is more difficult, but it ensures our action is relevant to our situation.

What we do differently: We look to the needs of the group to select an approach, rather than copying other leaders’ actions. This allows us to come up with new or different ideas that are effective for our specific situation. Don’t be afraid to be yourself as a leader!

Groups have different needs. Looking to others for an example hides the gaps in our own situation. If the group needs something different than what our examples did, then we will never notice it because we aren’t looking. If we don’t ask what the group needs, then we depend upon chance to find behaviors that happen to work. For example, we might read a book and start doing what it says. This is good. But if it doesn’t address a significant problem in the group, then we aren’t really improving the group’s outcome or our performance as leaders.

What we do differently: We need to deliberately construct a mental model for what the group needs, and use this model to assess the reality of our specific group. From this, we can seek out ideas to resolve deficiencies. When you see something is a problem, go search for books, videos, classes, mentors, or ideas wherever you might find them.

The explanation for a leader’s success isn’t always accurate. There’s no guarantee that the leader (or whoever is presenting the tactic) correctly identified the cause of his or her success. Most leaders learn behaviors unconsciously and as a result, misidentify the sources of their success. They don’t understand how they acted on the three functions. Even if the issue was rigorously studied, there’s no guarantee that the academic accurately identified a causal relationship. Academic studies are by nature reductionist (they try to isolate a variable), which is a challenge in the inherently interconnected world of human performance.

What we do differently: We evaluate behaviors based on the impact on the group. The extent to which we improve the group’s performance is the relevant indicator, whether or not other leaders do the same thing. If a problem seems to get better, then keep going. If not, go back to seeking out new ideas.

The measure of leadership success is group success, not individual success. When we assign group success to a leader’s behavior alone, we assume that the leader can affect everything in the group. This obviously isn’t possible. This perspective ignores the majority of group behavior that occurs outside of the leader’s influence and awareness. All three functions take place constantly and independently within each member. Asking what the group needs allows us to find behaviors that influence others’ behaviors.

What we do differently: We observe the functions as they exist within the group independent of leadership or our actions. This allows us to see the points where we can have a positive impact. Watch and listen to how members interact when you aren’t present, as these are the behaviors that drive the organization’s success or failure.

Many commonly-identified “leadership behaviors” are unrelated to leadership. This is particularly true in the wealth or “grind” sub-culture of leadership. Measures of financial success have little, if anything, to do with group excellence. A mental model that eliminates these distractions allows us to focus on the real path to bring out excellence in the members of the group.

What we do differently: Focusing on the group’s needs removes these factors from our consideration. If a behavior produces improvements in the group’s performance, then it is valuable, whether or not it fits a stereotype or caricature of leadership. Don’t worry if you aren’t a typical leader; if it works, then it’s the right thing to do.

Growth as a leader requires behavioral change. Even if we do find the right tactic for our situation, it is difficult to replace preferential behaviors. By asking what the group needs, we create an outcome towards which we can assess our behavioral change. We might feel like we have grown or improved because we are copying other leaders, but our impact on the members of the group has not changed. Others do not experience our behavior differently. If the group isn’t getting what they need after our first attempt, then we can continue working through the learning process. Without this learning process, we might think we are growing when we are stagnant.

What we do differently: We use a deliberate learning process to turn ideas into actions in the real world, and we repeat these actions whenever they are useful. We discard actions that don’t work, and use the same learning process to explain why or why not an action worked. Growth is uncomfortable, so do not worry if you feel this way.

The functional approach to leadership allows us to see leadership not as a personal characteristic or form of authority, but as a role that facilitates group success. The three functions shape what is possible for the group, and our actions upon them create or limit the group’s success. Stop asking what other leaders do, and start looking at your group to see what its members need to be excellent

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