Are high-performing leaders typically driven and demanding, or are they more commonly collaboration-oriented servant leaders? Are high-performing leaders primarily focused on financials and metrics, or on people and culture? Do they make decisions based on data analysis or gut instinct? The answer isn’t “a balanced” approach” or even “it depends on the situation.”
A high-performance leader is someone who has the ability to drive change, execute with precision and generate results within a broad range of situations and environments. Like most effective leaders they have a deep knowledge base and broad set of skills, but the one unique characteristic they share is the ability to integrate (rather than balance) seemingly divergent perspectives and priorities.
To explore the unique abilities of high-performing leaders, Dan Rust, Director of Leadership & OD, Infopro Learning and David Wilson, the Founder and CEO of Fosway Group, come together for an insightful podcast. Along with Nolan Hout, Vice President, Marketing of Infopro Learning, the session spotlights topics that most organizations are talking about.
Listen to the Podcast to learn more:
Dan Rust,Head of Global Leadership and Organizational Development at Infopro Learning, Inc, is a great leader with incredible strategic insight and tactician who can execute a strategic plan with excellence.
David Wilson, Founder and CEO of Fosway group – Europe’s and one of the World’s leading HR industry analysts, providing leading research and insights for next gen HR talent and learning.
Nolan Hout, Vice President of Marketing of Infopro Learning – A seasoned marketing professional with experience in every avenue of marketing including strategy, digital marketing and more.
An excerpt of the discussion follows:
Nolan:Today we have with us Dan Rust, the Head of Leadership at Infopro Learning and David Wilson, the CEO at Fosway Group- Europe’s number one analyst and research firm. The podcast topic is high potential leaders and their six natural tensions. Let us start with Dan to understand the high level definition of a high performance leader?
Dan: If we define leaders first- they are the ones who drive productive change or drive plan to change. A high performance leader is capable of driving change under different circumstances. We often confuse ourselves when we just look at leaders’ results. We tend to focus only on their output such as business growth, new product launches, market expansion, profit margin, etc. Whatever be the results, the leader either gets the credit or the blame – which is not fair in either way. Organizational success can be driven by multiple factors, some of which are out of leaders’ control. Successful results do not always equate to great leadership and failure does not always equate to poor leadership. There may be situations where leaders have done a great job but still the outcome is not considered as success due to external factors. Great leaders are the ones who have the ability to drive productive change in almost every environment.
We may highlight different traits of a high performing leader who can play a perfect role under any circumstance. The leader can be exceptionally humble when it is best for the business, strategic and tactical to have enough flexibility to achieve success in any market, any economic climate, any business. Be it non-profit, military, or government – the high performing leader can achieve success. This is the essence of a high performance leadership.
Nolan: How do we measure the ability of a high performance leader? Are there different facets of high-performance leaders?
David: One of the things I am interested in is the idea of cause and effect. Do we judge leaders on the basis of effect or cause? Or are we looking at how well leaders contributed to outcomes when the extraneous conditions were challenging? As Dan mentioned, there are a lot of factors, but one of the factors shines through. It is that high performance leaders create the conditions for success within an organization despite external reality, and are able to galvanize an organization, drive change, and prioritize the right part.
There are a lot of organizations that have rediscovered the importance of people and now have a different view on critical workers, because of the pandemic. Certainly, focus on leadership is stronger now than it has ever been. It’s a critical topic for organizations. The challenge is to understand how to develop and support leaders to maximize organizational success despite other challenging factors like hybrid workplace, the acceleration of business, the global nature of everything, and the use of technology. These topics are now equally critical, and we must think about them in a more nuanced way rather than just focus on “who has delivered the results”. Today, more and more corporates are exploring high performance leadership in a multi-dimensional way.
Nolan: What do you mean by “natural tensions” of high-performance leadership?
Dan :When we talk about the pandemic, I like to call it an experiment. Because there are various leaders who were trying to achieve great organizational results, not just financial results before the pandemic. But when the circumstances changed, those leaders could not evolve with the situation. This is where high-performance leaders can show the flexibility to evolve from an old normal to a new normal. Also, whatever be the environment, high performing leaders have the ability to flex the environment, to influence it, and evolve in it.
These are the six natural tensions that I have identified.
The first is strategic versus tactical, some leaders are exceptionally strategic while others are tactical.
High performance leaders are strategic and tactical virtually at the same time. Second is data-driven versus gut instinct.
There are some great leaders who leverage data and also their instinct to move in the right direction. In my definition, high performance leaders can flow back and forth with a good data oriented mind and an instinctively oriented mind. Third one is confidence versus humility. While some leaders are very servant leadership oriented others are confident and driven. High performance leaders are both and they are neither. They can determine what an organization needs from them as a leader? Do they need to show sincere humility? Do they need driven confidence to authentically be the leader that an organization needs at any point of time? Fourth is optimism versus paranoia and fifth one is being a driver persuader versus being a collaborative consensus builder. The last one is focus on financials versus focus on people and culture. There isn’t the challenge with all these six tensions as there is no one right answer. It requires
leadership discernment to adapt what is more appropriate and what is best at that specific time for the organization.
Nolan: If we identify these six natural tensions, is it important to just know which one you are? Or do you believe there are certain organizations that are more likely to succeed if they have these types of tensions versus those types of tensions?
Dan: In every circumstance or situation, we have most effectively used these tensions when a leader has achieved success in a specific environment, or he/she is making a transition into a new environment. For instance, the leaders is transitioning from a military background to software business or transitioning to a completely different segment within the organization or even transitioning to a group with a completely different culture. In such situations, these six tensions can represent the six conversations to help the leader develop and grow. Firstly, self-awareness is important to know where you are on the spectrum of each of these tensions. By giving the right coaching about self-awareness, leaders can understand where they are right now, where they need to be, and how they need to evolve for the new environment. This kind of flexibility becomes a learning moment for leaders as well because their career and life continue, they will experience different environments and lots of different circumstances.
Great leaders who are successful in this kind of transition during the pandemic can step back, assess themselves, reassess their own approach to the business, and ultimately evolve as the world evolves.
Nolan: When we look at these six tensions and you are also talking with other leaders of different organizations, what do you think is most vogue now? When we talk about trying to craft leaders, what type of leaders do you think are really trying to craft or desire within their organization?
David: The answer is agile and resilient leaders – because of the circumstances and the level of unpredictability around what is going on both economically and socially. Resilience is certainly a topic that has increasingly risen out the agenda on how to respond to change, approach change management, plot a path to handle a difficult situation, and build a culture of success and resilience. Business agility is also an important topic for organizations trying to increase their profits and overall performance.
It is about our ability to move across the spectrum of six tensions wherever it is needed.
Another sign that we can think about within the leadership spectrum is teacher versus learner which also equates to the driver versus persuader piece. Leaders are sometimes expected to have all the answers. They are expected to know whether they are giving their answers based on the data or their instinct. They are also expected to know whether this is financials or a people kind of priority. One of the interesting dynamics is to know at what point leaders are so that they can identify and facilitate a process to give a collective answer. This is more like a collaborative approach and underneath all this lie some interesting changes that are relevant to the post pandemic world. By understanding how to plot your path by adopting more agile strategies, you can build more resilience within the organization which can be the recipe for failure rathe than recipe for success.
Dan: I completely align with that thought on “teacher versus learner” – which can be the seventh natural tension for high performance leaders. Today, anyone who is like a go-to person may face challenges whether their queries will be answered or not in the new environment. Going back in the mid-90s, the CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, published a book called the Paranoid Survive which went out of fashion. But later in 2000s, the audio version of that book was republished as paranoia is a relevant topic again. In this book, it is an interesting to note that with the whole learner mindset, the confidence to be a learner along with others in the organization must be a unique leadership capability.
Nolan: One of the natural tensions you mention is “optimism versus paranoia.” Do you really think great leaders are paranoid?
Dan: Pessimism is a characteristic that doesn’t get its fair level of respect in business and yet with great leaders who can achieve success in a variety of circumstances, and when the circumstances shift, they can also shift with it.This is paranoia to be a great leader. With that level of flexibility, you may need to deal with pessimism. Sometimes you must be suspicious and sometimes cynical. Not every answer is right for every circumstance. This is where we struggle in leadership development and undergo course on how to become a strategic leader to handle a set of circumstances. And when those circumstances change, many of those practices that might have been optimal in one set of circumstances are less than optimal in others.
Nolan: One of the tensions is “data driven versus gut instinct.” Shouldn’t leaders always base their biggest decisions on hard data and facts?
Dan: I am a big fan of data and believe in gathering as much information as possible to base my decisions on facts. This is my instinct. When someone comes along with lots of facts, they also have an instinct that takes them in the direction which everyone else also views as visionary. It is the data-driven hindsight of leaders which is not based on data from a PPT or a spreadsheet but their guts to know which direction to choose.
Nolan: As we come to the end of this podcast, this is a great topic to end on. Do these tensions need to be learned or should be learned? For people listening to this and thinking to implement this in their organization, how does one can go about it?
Dan: Yes, these tensions are learnable, coachable, and developable. Training may not be the right word to develop a leader but some of this discernment can be an interesting topic. If we pay attention to what is happening in the news or in the society or culture, we can have these high profile innovative leaders and billionaires who are exceptionally successful. As, leadership developers, we have to up our game, develop more discerning models, and speak to these subtleties in a way that makes them accessible to a new generation of leaders.
David: Talking about some of the capabilities and characteristics, it is possibly the time to develop and expand. Now is the time to provide leaders with the tools that they can use at points in time to counteract some of their natural tendency to be on one end of the spectrum rather than the other, or to understand where maybe the right place is. These tools can also make leaders understand the teacher versus learner spectrum. It is the high time to focus on a set of expectations and characteristics around different things in business. We can also understand how to use those tools, strategies, and different models to build those characteristics in our leaders.
Nolan: In our everyday lives, there are leaders who are really changing people’s lives and making them live a happier, healthier, and better life. Thank you, Dan and David, for spending some time with us and sharing your insights on the six natural tensions that lead to high performance leadership. Thank you both for a great session.