Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, business en motion

During times of change, cutbacks and slowdowns, are the words ‘leadership’ and ‘engagement’ simply hype, or do they offer real substance and value? What could happen if research documented not only their true significance but also reinforced an implicit link between leadership and engagement? We now have access to thirty-five years of research from Kouzes and Posner which achieves just that!

The first stage of this research captured what people like you and I want from leaders when they are serving from their personal best. This resulted in a set of practices, commitments and behaviors now known as the five practices of ‘The Leadership Challenge’. I have tested these research findings by presenting these global trends to Middle Eastern audiences continuously and without fail, this demographic demonstrates that it too expects the same from a leader as every other group, region or profile. The importance of the top four ‘must-haves’ that warrants a follower’s time and respect – trust, dynamism, competency and vision – simply cannot be overlooked from a human perspective, irrespective of culture.

The research reinforces you are only a leader if others think you are. It highlights the importance of the following:

• Leaders have their own unique ‘voice’, one that compels them towards ‘difference’; then they apply it walking this talk consistently, which allows a team member to see evidence of who their leader really is.

• Once the messenger is believed, it’s time for the follower to feel an alignment with the message. This message is the vision, which brings clarity to where all proposed activity is going to lead us; a new destination that offers hope for a better future. At this stage, it’s likely people ‘jump on the bus’ and may even keep adding ideas for the journey together.

• Times will get tough on the way when travelling to a new place or vision. There’ll be risks and mistakes (learning opportunities) while finding new ways. Curiosity will yield great returns at this stage.

• Courage will start to grow and enable us beyond our former selves to new levels of confidence and competence. The struggle will be balanced with support, collaboration and personal growth.

• Just as ‘heart is to leadership’ as is ‘water is to a marathon runner’, both individual and community endeavors are rewarded for contributions. The leader moves away from institutionalized approaches, showing true connection and understanding.

The significance of these leadership practices should not be overlooked, especially when exploring how people feel about their workplace.

In fact, a quote from the pocket guide ‘Great Leadership Creates Great Workplaces’ states: What makes the most difference in how people feel about their workplace is how they report on their leaders’ behavior.

Only when team members see evidence of the five practices will the following statements be commonly overheard:

• My workgroup has a strong sense of team spirit
• I am proud to tell others that I work for this organization
• I am committed to this organization’s success
• I would work harder and for longer hours if the job demanded it
• I am highly productive in my job
• I am clear about what is expected of me in my job
• I feel that my organization values my work
• I am effective in meeting the demands of my job
• Around my workplace, people seem to trust management
• I feel like I am making a difference in this organization

This is the link between leadership and engagement! Without frequent evidence of the thirty specific behaviors that come behind the five leader practices, engagement as defined in these ten statements will simply dilute or worse still, not exist.

Drill even further into the research and the following will be highlighted:

  1. Organizations with high engagement levels will demonstrate the strongest evidence of behavior in the practice of ‘Enable Others to Act’, whereby a leader will frequently be seen investing in the competence and confidence of the people.
  2. High levels of ‘Enabling Others to Act’ will generally come hand in hand with leaders who ‘Model the Way’. An alignment will frequently be evident between what the leader says and does, fuelling greater trust in ‘the person’ that the leader is.
  3. The most difficult practice to achieve for leaders worldwide is to ‘Inspire a Shared Vision’, partially because it takes more effort and time to inspire than command someone to comply. In times of challenge, this, along with clarity of a vision, is simply ‘non-negotiable’.

Research has provided an unequivocal template for us all to ponder. It provides guidance when answering this question: ‘Does your workplace deserve high levels of engagement’. Perhaps the real question then becomes: ‘What do you wish to do with those research findings’? Leadership is a choice, and with that choice comes those who are dedicated to practice the skills and behaviors and those who are not. With leaders being the best learners, how much are you willing to sacrifice to build that all-important trust and earn your team’s engagement?