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Strategies for effective leadership


    Strategies for effective leadership

      Introduction to leadership strategies

      Leadership is a crucial role in any organisation. Whether it’s a small group made up of a handful of people, or a multi-site business with workforce divisions across the globe, someone has to lead the team. Without an effective leader to set strategy and a vision for the future, mobilise the people and make the tough decisions, businesses simply flounder and fail. If you’re a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Managing Director (MD), business owner or any sort of people leader, you’ll be acutely aware of how challenging the role can be.

      The primary characteristics of great leaders include:

      1. - Display great vision: to set the future state of the organisation
      2. - Articulation mastery: inspire, motivate and communicate with clarity
      3. - Maintaining integrity: retain a practical relationship and be consistently honest
      4. - Being assertive: to confidently and succinctly present a viewpoint
      5. - Walk the talk: to ensure that your actions match the words you speak


      How we help leaders with Growth and Change

      Facing your problems and looking for solutions is a key leadership attribute.  It is creative and courageous.  Alembic supports leaders as they creatively solve problems in life and business.


      The role of a leader

      Leaders are the directors of change and the deliverers of purpose. They are the chosen ones that own the headline task of achieving growth and satisfying shareholders, ideally doing so whilst running a tight but rewarding organisational set-up for all involved. One thing is certain, being a leader is a tough job.

      leadership-is-toughSo how do leaders cope with the pressure of the role, the inconsistencies of the market, and the needs of the people that serve them? Who teaches leaders to be leaders, or is it something that can be learned over time in the role? What if you've inherited the leading role in a family business? For some, rising to meet the needs of leadership just comes naturally, almost like it’s embedded in their DNA. But for many leaders, it’s more likely that you’ve found yourself in the position somewhat unexpectedly, and that you harbour doubts about your own ability to deliver on strategy, sales targets or the daunting range of objectives set by shareholders for you to accomplish. This can take it's toll on your confidence as a leader.

      So what can you do to prepare yourself in order to be ready to take on the challenge of being the best leader you can be? This article explores a range of techniques leaders can use to improve performance in their day-to-day work.


      How did I get to be a leader?

      The journey to the top

      Most leaders that find themselves as the head of a business do so as a result of climbing a career ladder, sometimes within the same organisation. This can occur through them purposely seeking the role, perhaps following an almost clinically prescribed pathway to the top. But it may also be due to the role seeking you. Instead of following your intended path to the top, the role can suddenly materialise unexpectedly, and you might find yourself being steered enthusiastically towards the leadership position by others. To exacerbate this element of surprise further, it’s entirely possible that you find yourself unable to avoid the appointment as a leader due to peer pressure. Eventually, despite your own doubt and a potential less-than-obvious fit with your abilities, the appeal of being chief executive becomes too great and you’re drawn towards it via an un-ignorable lure. Sound familiar?

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      climbing-the-leadership-ladderAll too frequently, the appointment to a leadership role can occur at a time when you’re not necessarily ready for the challenge. Many aspiring leaders that make their way into senior management do so willingly and with the objective of personal accomplishment, whilst being successful in the process too. But not necessarily all intend to get right to the top. Senior management might be sufficient for many - you get some of the kudos with less of the stress.

      The arrival of a leadership role can creep up somewhat unpredictably, forcing both the leader and their immediate stakeholders to consider their position, plus the role they play, now and in the future! This position of responsibility can raise questions such as:

      1. - How on earth did I get here?
      2. - What do I do now and will I be able to perform?
      3. - What is the vision and how do I articulate it?
      4. - Can I set an effective business strategy?
      5. - How will I get people to follow me?
      6. - Am I able to lead myself before others?

      Regardless of experience and ability, these are all perfectly natural responses to finding oneself facing the challenge of an impending leadership position. How you respond to each is an individual choice based on your ability to evaluate the task ahead and then implement an action plan. 


      Leadership and change

      As a leader, your primary objective will be to deliver on the business strategy. The word ‘change’ is often used in conjunction with leadership, business and strategy. Within the framework of business, change is such a huge word that we’ll be covering it in much greater detail elsewhere, but here we’ll attempt to outline change and what it means to leaders in this piece.

      Managing change in an organisation is to attempt the facilitation of evolution within the company. Managing the change correctly can have beneficial effects, such as maintaining processes, preserving culture, and ensuring the consistency of communication throughout the business. Good management of change will assist with the effective and smooth implementation of decisions from the leadership. But why is change necessary, and why might it occur?

      Change can occur for a multitude of reasons, including:

      1. - Market forces shaping trade conditions
      2. - Shifting consumer trends
      3. - Technology or production shift
      4. - In response to innovation
      5. - Supply chain and material availability
      6. - People, resources and abilities

      Of course, this is only skimming the surface, but you get the gist. Apart from the final bullet, all of these changes are likely to stem from beyond the boundaries of a business, and are therefore external. However, the way you react in response to the change is internal, and should - if going by the textbook - be a strategic response rather than a tactical one. Strategic change can be defined as ‘the proactive management of change in organisations to achieve clearly identified strategic objectives’. Thinking strategically is a practice that often confuses and misleads those in managerial positions who are pursuing strategic endeavours.

      Strategic change is principally concerned with the people of the organisation and the activities that they perform. With people organised under the business structure, often in groups or departments, each carries out (tactical) tasks with a common interest or objective - a strategic goal. Creating a strategic vision - a simple statement of intent that a business should pursue as a single, collaborative entity, helps to bind those groups or departments in alignment to work towards the vision. The importance of shared thinking and collective intent cannot be underestimated.


      Articulating change

      Articulation is a skill that cannot be simply installed like computer software, and it's a tricky one to learn too. In fact, it's a skill that is developed over time with experience. When you think of leaders who have mastered the art of articulation you might recall great statesmen like Winston Churchill, Barack Obama or Martin Luther King. All great speakers understand the power of words and the need for clarity when delivering the information to an audience. Some will have learnt this over time, Churchill for example, initially had a rather unattractive style of delivery, but grew to perfect it through practice. The topic of articulation, specifically when delivering strategy and vision, will be covered in another article in due course, but the importance of communication in connection with change and how to initiate it is hugely significant.

      Change should be managed proactively by the leadership and communicated with clarity to those within the organisation that will implement the change. Understanding pressure points is important as part of the management process, and doing so effectively mitigates the risk of successful strategic change failure.


      Characteristics of a leader

      So just what is it that makes one leader better than another? If you’ve ever asked yourself what it is that makes you lead, there’s little doubt that the thought alone provokes  many reasons that push you to do what you do, as well as a bunch that make you question why you bother. Inevitably, the act of questioning ones own ability to lead a company in itself can foster seeds of doubt in the mind. Leaders often display a range of similar character traits which indicate their potential to operate at the highest level in their organisation. In this section we explore some of the more commonly encountered characteristics displayed by leaders of business.

      Great leaders display great vision 

      Think of a leader, then think of what they stood for and what it was that made them great. It may seem somewhat obvious, but the best leaders tend to adopt a laser-like focus on their goal, and a stoic belief that they are exactly the right person to deliver on that goal. This vision, when applied appropriately and effectively, is magnetic, and has the potential to draw teams together, stacking alongside one another as a united power. But what is a vision, where does it come from, and how do you use it?

      Establishing the perfect vision can be tricky. And plenty of leaders get it wrong, yet still progress to be successful. However, that’s a bumpy route, and one that can be made much smoother if you use the right tools and techniques. Amongst several other key things, understanding the position of your business in the market and where your strengths lie is crucial. A robust knowledge of your organisational, product and service strengths, or core competencies as they are sometimes referred to, are mission-critical to the success of moving towards your vision.

      Your vision is a future state, somewhat ethereal, almost unachievable - out of reach if you wish, but it should definitely be something ambitious to lead your organisation towards.

      Articulation mastery for leaders

      articulation-masteryCommunicating the purpose behind the vision should be high on your leadership agenda. Sharing your own belief in the vision with your team is fundamental to harnessing their enthusiasm, which will ultimately become the fuel which drives the activities that will deliver on the business strategy. How you go about articulating the vision is of critical importance. However, there are no rules or set format for doing so. Why? Because all businesses are different and won’t necessarily respond to the way in which they are told about the lofty ambitions of the C-suite.

      Articulation of a corporate vision will usually require an element of creativity in developing the most suitable way to effectively communicate the goals of the board. However, some basic principles apply that will help you do so.

      For maximum clarity of communication, ensure:

      1. - The agreed vision is appropriate, simple and aspirational
      2. - Inspires the belief and enthusiasm of your team
      3. - It is reflected in the culture and values of the organisation
      4. - Encourages inclusivity of activities to stimulate response
      5. - Is communicated with clarity and frequency, internally and externally

      Of course, there are many other techniques that you might utilise to leverage the potential of a powerful vision, but starting with the basics is recommended.

      Leaders maintain integrity

       A rather obvious but often overlooked attribute of a strong leader is the ability to build trust and inspire. Integrity is a key component of both of these characteristics, and can easily be overlooked by a developing leader as they strive to foster respect and loyalty amongst a team.

      The grind of office politics can wear down even the hardiest of leaders, and can result in occasions where there is an overwhelming temptation to lower their guard. Doing so results in exposure - minimal at best, full on at worst - and exposure is both infectious and dangerous. Exposure could be the revealing of a weakness, some personal or company information, or a tendency or habit that would otherwise have remained private. Once such detail is known, even by a limited few in an organisation, the potential for character damage, aka integrity, is increased.

      This emphasises the significance of maintaining good but practically limited relations with your colleagues, whether they are senior management or otherwise. This isn’t to suggest that a leader shouldn’t be open, approachable and friendly, but that it is important to be conscious of how revealing details might have knock-on implications further down the line, and have the potential to compromise your integrity.

      Asserting the correct way

      Most are familiar with the phrase ‘less is more’. This is unlikely to be truer than in situations where a leader is relaying important information to the team. Assertiveness is often confused with aggression due to the potential for assertion to be abrupt and perhaps slightly above normal volume. Ironically, the raised temperature of aggression often results from the failure to communicate effectively and therefore not winning over the agreement of your team. Allowing communication to drift into an aggressive state is dangerous as it can present implications about your character and integrity, which can potentially persist beyond the instance where the aggression was presented.

      The opposite of being assertive is to be passive. A passive communicator is to be overly-agreeable, un-opinionated, or possibly less vocal. Maybe all three. The lack of ability to be heard or acknowledged means that your opinion will be challenged more frequently, or worse, go unnoticed. A passive leader will inevitably struggle to win over the hearts and minds of troops as a result.

      Being assertive requires confidence in ones presence and a belief in your view point, plus the ability to present that viewpoint succinctly. This is a skill that is frequently observed in leaders that make their way into the media. In situations where time is of the essence and the needs of your audience are strong, the effectiveness of a short, concise but clearly articulated perspective is high. The ability to deliver opinion or instruction is an incredibly valuable asset to all leaders.

      Walking the walk

      It’s a clichéd saying, but the best leaders really do ‘walk the walk’. This term roughly translates to mean that a leader will ensure that their actions match the words that they speak. Leading by example might mean immersing yourself - where appropriate - in the everyday activities that your team carry out to demonstrate that you’re capable of venturing outside of your comfort zone to get the job done. This sends a positive signal from a leader to their team to indicate that it’s OK to step outside of your comfort zone, or even just beyond the scope of your everyday work, to ensure projects are delivered on time.

      Walking the walk means so much more than just lending a hand when the going gets tough. It means leading by example when you interact with others too. For example, displaying equality when communicating with a colleague, using appropriate language and tone, extending courtesies, allowing that person the freedom to respond without cutting their sentence short, the list goes on.

      All too often, those charged with leading a business can become so entrenched in the responsibility that they can view their own priorities as more important than others. But priorities are relative, and the failure to recognise this exposes characteristics such as ego, self-importance, arrogance, and stunted awareness. These negative aspects have the potential to erode a leader's integrity within a business, which is ironically the very aspect most seek so enthusiastically to achieve. 

      Create an environment for growth

      Like plants, businesses need just the right combination of ingredients in order to prosper. And unless senior management can provide the appropriate conditions for growth, it can be difficult for an organisation to thrive.

      Establishing the right atmosphere in the workplace might sound like an obvious activity for a leader to pursue, but how might one actually go about it? What is an atmosphere that promotes prosperity - is it a strategy in itself? Or maybe it’s a set of values? Perhaps it’s about developing an open, positive culture of creativity? In truth, cultivating an atmosphere for growth is not one single action or outcome, it’s many. In fact, like most strategic objectives, few are truly achievable by pursuing a sole tactical activity.

      Consider getting the team to collectively identify 10 things that might improve their working conditions and result in a more productive office. Obviously, you can’t deliver on all 10, so the best course would be to implement the top 3. Of course, there are various tools and techniques that you could use for the identification, selection and implementation processes, which we’ll discuss in greater detail in another article.

      Some of the actions you might consider include:

      1. - Creating a set of shared values amongst the team
      2. - Using those values to outline a desired cultural state
      3. - Agree objectives and KPIs that motivate team activity
      4. - Identify role models and amplify their actions
      5. - Relax a rigid work structure to something more flexible

      All of the above will require organisational change, so driving that change is key to the success. Of critical importance is buy-in, therefore, each of the actions you choose to follow should be fully detailed and communicated to those it will most effect.


      Challenges of being a leader

      When you pondered the decision to accept the role of leadership, were you aware of the added responsibility that would inevitably come as part of the package? Or the added pressures that heading up a business might bring? Sure, the rewards are usually greater, especially so if the business you’re in happens to be a particularly successful one. But even so, a decent remuneration package can be called into question when the level of stress arising out of leadership escalates into the red. It’s a tough call to know whether you have the right blend of skills to be a leader. But it’s possible to become better at leading through training, coaching and learning what it takes to be a better leader.

      Typically, we encounter leaders who experience challenges on multiple levels: with shareholders; senior managers; wider teams; their own family; and with themselves. Outside of people, primary leadership issues can centre around sales growth, innovation, finances, resources, structure, or anywhere the future prosperity of their business might be compromised. Here we outline the key issues which perpetually trouble those at the head of a company.

      Becoming disconnected from the team

      Upon becoming a leader, relationships between you and your staff can change, transforming to become more like contractual agreements and therefore shift from close to detached. This often results in leaders becoming isolated from their colleagues, developing a sense of loneliness within their role due to the fact that they have to administer rules to their staff yet maintain a healthy connection to them.

      Struggling to establish complete authority

      Leaders are frequently pushed in at the deep end of business as a result of another leader departing. It’s possible that you might find yourself with a relatively easy task in taking on the role of someone who was inadequate for the task of leadership, making your transition a welcome change in the organisation. But what if you are the successor to a popular leader who was an expert at handling the challenge of steering the business to success? This can lead to anxiety and self-doubt about the abilities you have, and call into question your level of experience in filling the role.

      Lack of problem-solving skills

      problem-solvingAll leaders have to solve problems. Unfortunately, it goes with the territory, and if you’ve managed to avoid doing so until now then you’re either a masterful leader who eats issues in his sleep and dodges them in advance, or your company is solving them for you. Staff issues, personal conflicts and client misunderstandings are likely to crop up regularly. And there can be problems in the supply chain, maybe internally or externally, causing issues with production. Wherever or whatever it is, problem-solving is a fundamental requirement for anyone running a team. And if you’ve not got the skills to manage the issue, things can quickly escalate from bad too worse. Tools such as the 5 why’s, decision matrix and plan-do-check-act (PDCA) can help you get to the root and resolve it before that escalation occurs.

      Feeling like you’ve had an identity shift

      The leader has to contend with many roles, which might include being the boss, a mum or dad, son or daughter, or a wife or husband. The act of switching between these positions can present a leader with the challenge of adopting the right persona for the situation, which is not necessarily an easy switch to make. Some might adopt a form of identity management to help address the switching personas appropriately to avoid compromising their position.

      Micro-managing your people

      Leaders who over-control will stifle creativity and limit the free-thinking of their people. Sure, it’s tough to let go of the things that matter most to you, but trust is a major factor in allowing a team to grow. You’ll display trust by allowing your team to act for themselves, learning on the way as they make the same mistakes you did.

      A more positive and productive way to manage people is to nurture their talent. Encouraging your staff to play to their strengths will breed increased engagement and loyalty. To compliment this, it can be helpful to bring in an external facilitation service to determine aspects such as team characteristics, functionality and motivations. This shifts the focus to an independent provider as opposed to internal, which in itself applies fresh thinking and a new approach to learning.

      Not coping with leadership pressure

      It’s common to hear of leaders who can cope with the pressure of the role with an almost serene calmness. However, this appearance often belies the reality of the situation. Leaders are constantly under pressure from shareholders to deliver on the business strategy, and just like a strategy is an overarching plan to achieve objectives, the pressure to deliver on it overarches all others. The challenge is for leaders to handle that pressure without showing signs of panic.

      Handling the pressure of leading an organisation is never going to be a simple task, especially if it’s a large one, and the pressure that is bundled as part of the leadership package is all too often intense. Coping with the range of emotions that arrive almost simultaneously with the role is critical if leaders are going to A - survive; and B - achieve success. In finding yourself as the leader, the chances are that at some point you’ve displayed at least some of the qualities required to fulfil the role, but it’s just as likely that you’ve also got a decent amount of anxiety about being able to do exactly as the board expects you to.


      Techniques to overcome executive issues

      Managing your emotions is a critical skill for good leaders. The ability to switch between being an effective decision maker in the board room to being a pleasant and caring father, mother, brother, or whatever role you perform once at home is one that doesn’t necessarily come naturally. This act of switching between roles is likely to raise the concept of authenticity in your own mind, and potentially others too, with a leader having to juggle their identity appropriately to suit the requirements of their current company.

      Of course, adopting a leaders tone and mannerisms, for example, in the company of a young family, isn’t likely to be received positively. This will require you to swap personas. Under any other circumstances, consciously switching character could be considered acting, but a leader must transform their style to be conducive with their environment. In addition to this, they must also learn how to switch off, primarily to preserve energy and recharge their mental state. You’ll no doubt have come across the saying “don’t bring your work home”. Well, this phrase was made for those in leadership positions.

      Taking a break can help refresh your daily routine too. Switching your environment within the workplace is also a good technique to refresh yourself as it can awake dormant cells. The simple act of changing the setting stimulates the brain, telling it to prepare for something fresh. If you can find somewhere really inspirational in your day you might trigger some dopamine! You might also consider taking exercise, some meditation or a short walk outside the office will suffice in helping you refresh yourself in readiness to tackle the challenges of the day.


      Strategy for effective leadership

      If you were to search for the definition of strategic leadership, there’s a strong chance you would find your way to Wikipedia and discover the following statement:

      Strategic Leadership is the ability to influence others to voluntarily make decisions that enhance the prospects for the organisation's long-term success while maintaining short-term financial stability.

      This is just a simple summary of the meaning of the term ‘strategic leadership’, but if we take a moment to break it down into constituent parts, you’ll reveal an altogether more profound set of individual strategic concepts:

      1. - Ability to influence others
      2. - Voluntarily make decisions
      3. - Enhance the prospects for the organisation
      4. - Long-term success
      5. - Maintain short-term financial stability

      Let’s look at each of these elements in a little more detail.

      The ability to influence others

      This element is concerned with articulation, or the leaders communicating their requirements. This might translate to: ‘leaders must be capable of being clear when delivering their thoughts and instructions’. Influence is all about being sufficiently convincing with your ideas that the recipient becomes compelled to carry out your wishes. For a leader, what is central to the success of this aspect is the need to be persuasive, coherent and succinct in those communications.

      To voluntarily make decisions

      Being convincing aligns closely with the ability to convert a recipient to voluntarily make decisions and sits very much in tandem with the former element. In fact, it amplifies the requirement for a leader to be convincing in their articulation of the instructions in order to gain favour with their people so that they will do what is asked of them. It could be argued that the failure of either one of these aspects will result in the failure of the other. Therefore, both must be observed and carried out expertly if any strategic aims are to be successful.

      To enhance the prospects of the organisation

      The next element - to enhance the prospects of the organisation - might seem a rather obvious requirement for any strategy to function. But looking more closely and understanding the meaning of this term brings a more insightful ideal. If you were to consider exactly what you are currently doing as a leader, then move to your senior management, could you honestly declare that everything you are doing enhances the prospects for your organisation? Is your time accurately accounted for? How much of what you do is surplus to requirements? So many businesses lose sight of their vision as they grind their way through the working week that they fail to adhere to key principles such as this. There are simple exercises and tools that are available to evaluate where growth might occur and how to move forwards more positively, avoiding the trap of losing your business vision.

      Establish long term success

      This element involves looking to the future to ensure that the business continues to grow and builds on its competitive advantage. Developing sufficient strategic foresight to plan so far in advance takes vision (see previous) and requires a commitment from those responsible for lighting the way. This principle loops back to the first aspect, and the second, and requires the leadership to utilise both to present a strong, compelling case for the business to pursue the chosen pathway to longer term success.

      Maintaining short-term financial stability

      The final aspect, maintaining short-term financial stability, whilst concerned with the shorter term, is critical to the survival of the business if it is to be successful with any sort of long-term strategy. Financial stability is the lifeblood of strategy which fuels the more tactical activities that support it. The potential to derail strategic intentions increases when that supply is stifled, so the need to maintain healthy business in the short term is essential.



      The reality is that there is no textbook instruction for anyone to follow that transforms people into leaders. There are no set pieces, nor a checklist to tick off. The routes to leadership are many, and they remain in place for others once you’ve arrived. However, the ‘5 principles’ outlined here offer a framework for leaders to follow. In fact, they become even more powerful when used alongside tried and tested tools, and a simple strategic plan that can be articulated well to convince and mobilise your team to achieve your organisation's ambition.


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