· 6 min read · Features

What is the single most important characteristic of an effective leader?

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Most of us agree great leaders are those who inspire us to act and give us a sense of purpose that has little to do with any external incentive or reward. They have the ability to help us reach for something better in ourselves. And we know people who love going to work are more creative and more productive – and they treat their colleagues, clients and customers better.

Most of us agree great leaders are those who inspire us to act and give us a sense of purpose that has little to do with any external incentive or reward. They have the ability to help us reach for something better in ourselves. And we know people who love going to work are more creative and more productive - and they treat their colleagues, clients and customers better.

Imagine if more people inside the organisation could learn to think, act and communicate like those who inspire us… Leadership abilities such as those described by emotional intelligence (EQ) explain what leaders do, but not why they perform. Furthermore, knowing what to do is all very well, but the big question for the rest of us is how to do it. In working with some of the world's best companies over the past 12 years, the question of how to develop leaders who inspire is the single most consistent question I get asked.

According to more than 20 years of research in psychology, there are at least seven common factors that contribute to the how of creating positive behaviour change (see Prochaska (1999), How do people change, and how can we change to help many more people?).

Engagement - 'I have a dream…'

According to author Simon Sinek (How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, Portfolio Penguin, 2011), most of us can explain what we do at work. Some of us can also describe how we do it. Great leaders, on the other hand, can also clearly explain why they do what they do. Being clear about your aspirations and dreams goes to the heart of great leadership.

We are drawn to leaders and organisations that are able to communicate why they believe what they believe. True leaders are really CSOs - 'chief storytelling officers' - and the stories they tell become the stuff of dreams. Your job as a leader is to tell and retell the story of why you do what you do and what your business is capable of achieving - where it has come from, where it is now and where it is going. Most importantly, it is about enabling people to understand the value of their contribution to the story.

In other words, the how of building leadership skills begins with engaging people in the why they do what they do.

Benchmarking - self-discovery and self-directed change

Even when people are motivated to develop their EQ and leadership skills, they can often remain unclear about how to work on these skills until they become aware of how they measure up. There are many ways of gaining feedback on performance, but by far the most credible and compelling way is to benchmark emotional and social competencies and provide feedback using high-quality psychometric assessment tools. Many studies have shown that self-discovery is the best catalyst for self-development.

Measuring levels of leadership EQ helps make clear some of the skills that have been important in getting to where we are, as well as clarifying the skills we need to focus on to become truly inspirational.

Wanting to change is the first step. To encourage development, leaders also need to see where they have already been successful and learn to build their strengths into a development plan. Genuine self-discovery is the catalyst that generates the energy required for self-directed change (see Kolb et al (1968), Self-directed change. Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 4:4).

Create manageable, measureable goals - and share them

Having made clear why you do what you do and having clarified how you measure up to the challenge of leadership, you are now ready to set goals. The research is unanimous on this point (see Locke and Latham (1990), A theory of goal setting and task performance).

When people are ready to commit to a programme of change, setting specific goals helps create and sustain lasting motivation. Setting definite targets or goals that are aligned with your vision generates and uses your energy. In order to convert your dreams into reality, it is necessary to break them down into achievable steps. Leaders who communicate a dream also need to have a plan. If communicating the dream or the vision is why people find you inspiring, then setting goals provide the 'what to do'. In other words, average leaders provide their people with something to work on, but the most inspiring leaders give their people something to work towards.

Model the skills

Providing people with opportunities to observe models of the skills they want to acquire greatly accelerates learning - a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Modelling is a more effective learning method than simply being told about the skills, because it requires greater attention. We do much better at acquiring these skills when the components are distilled into a blueprint that we can imitate.

This is much more than simply 'monkey see, monkey do'. It is not only copying the practical tactics and strategy that drive change, it is actually understanding why these behaviours work and how to practise them. Providing psychological insight and an understanding of what helps or hinders how these skills work raises your belief that you too possess these capabilities.

Practise new skills - and provide feedback

Providing clear models of the desired behaviour, along with psychological insight, although important for generating the persistence necessary for change to occur, is not sufficient in itself. Nothing takes the place of repeated, deliberate practice of the skills you wish to build.

A common mistake in training leaders in EQ is to think people can acquire these behaviours quickly by attending motivational seminars - the 'just do it' approach. Although these activities can certainly inspire the desire to change, recent breakthroughs in neuroscience make it clear real behavioural change takes time, because it needs to be supported by changes in the emotional brain. As such, these behaviours require practice and repetition over several weeks or months (see Phillippa Lally (2009), How are habits formed, European Journal of Social Psychology, 40:6).

An analysis by Steven Murray and Brian Udermann (CAHPERD Journal, 28:1, 2003) clearly identifies that learners exposed to distributed practice far outperformed those employing massed practice. And, although practice may not make you perfect, it will certainly make you better.

If practice is important, so too is providing feedback. Organisational psychologists have long known that consistent constructive feedback is the most effective way to motivate people and provide direction. It really is a question of 'mirror, mirror on the wall'.

Provide coaching support

Although others cannot tell you how you should change, other people can provide a lot of help in supporting the process of change. Research demonstrates that the value of learning is maintained, if not greatly enhanced, when people receive targeted coaching support. In other words, providing coaching and mentoring to people on the job greatly facilitates the transfer of learning and contributes to positive change.

In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in the use of one-on-one executive coaching. Various approaches to delivering executive coaching have been used. By far the most powerful programmes have been those that have combined the elements of: goal-setting, feedback, skill practice, supervisor involvement, journaling and constant evaluation of progress and end-results.

However, due to the high costs associated with coaching programmes, they have largely been restricted to a chosen few. In response to this challenge, we at RocheMartin launched an online coaching platform, SmartCoach, that integrates each of the seven elements described in the research into a dynamic interactive leadership programme that can be delivered cost-effectively across an organisation. Psychologists have known for a long time that this sort of support maximises skill transfer to the world of work and helps prevents relapse.

Evaluate change

Finally, what gets measured gets done… An important part of any leadership programme is the measurement of an individual's actual performance against the behaviours targeted for change. Ideally, when leaders themselves have been involved in setting their goals and choosing the skills for development, they are much more likely to make progress. Documenting individual progress by evaluating changes in both understanding and behaviour reinforces learning, charts the way forward and demonstrates return on investment. Nothing succeeds like success.

Wrapping-up

The evidence is impressive. Leaders who inspire others do not necessarily need to come up with all the big ideas, but rather create the right culture in which big ideas can happen. They provide a description of why the group must change, where they are going and how they will get there. That is: why we should do what we do.

Similarly, programmes for developing great leaders should not simply focus on what leadership skills to build, but how to build them. The seven elements described here represent the how of building sustainable leadership skills. So, the real questions are: do you as a leader make clear why you do what you do? Do you do this for colleagues and customers? Most importantly, do you have the right culture that inspires leadership in everyone and that allows everyone to buy in to the vision, product or service that you provide?

Martyn Newman is a consulting psychologist and managing director, RocheMartin. Newman is the author of the international bestseller, Emotional Capitalists - The new leaders (John Wiley) and the Emotional Capital Report a tool for measuring emotional intelligence and leadership. He was keynote speaker at the Leadership and Emotional Intelligence Summit in London on 9 March.