Leading a team of leaders

As the future of work becomes today’s reality, the way we work continues to evolve and shift, as more people become self-directing and self-selecting in their roles. And this means that the skills a great leader needs are also changing. 

Here is a particularly knotty leadership challenge. How do you lead a team of leaders, of people who are already at the top of their game, and are used to holding senior positions within their own organisations?

This, it seems, is a challenge that faces the chair of any board around the world.

A business board, almost by definition, is comprised of businesspeople who are, or have been, senior leaders within their own sphere. 

As Kirsten Patterson, the CEO at the Institute of Directors, notes, in essence any board chair is leading a team of his or her peers.

And, she says, a huge part of the success of a board comes down to the strength and skills of the chair.

It is also a somewhat different leadership experience in that as well as leading a group of your peers, there is no managerial control. 

Patterson says board members tend to be self-starters and independent thinkers who hold a certain world view, will express that view, are prepared to take responsibility and to be accountable.

She notes too that the chair is selected by the board itself. So while boards may, in some quarters, be seen as somewhat old fashioned, they have for many years been at the leading edge of today’s changing mode of work.

Their role is much like that of gig or agile workers, it is flexible, across different industries and they are self- directed teams with a self-selected leader.

“You serve in the role of board chair at the discretion of your peers. On one hand you have their endorsement, so that gives a level of support around the table, but you also are serving at their discretion.”

IoD run courses on chairing a board, which are in essence leadership programmes.

Patterson also notes a shift in the wider education system in the last decade or so, has put a real emphasis on leadership skills and the workplace now contains a generation of people who have had leadership training.  


What makes an outstanding leader? 

Asked what makes for an outstanding leader,  Brad Stringer, an advisor at The Leadership Circle New Zealand, says that beyond the usual traits of great leaders, who have a guiding vision, strategic purpose, a systems level understanding, and strong people skills, the most outstanding leaders can scale up the leadership around them. 

“They see the people around them as fellow leaders and are generous about giving them the resources they need to develop.

“To an outstanding leader, authority is plural, something to be shared, and they can rapidly increase the capability of their organisation by sharing their leadership abilities with others.

“A leader can’t create new time, nor can they clone themselves. The only way to extend your own capabilities as a leader is to grow those of the people around you,” he says.

Asked about her personal leadership style Patterson says while it is probably best to ask her team, she hopes her leadership style embraces an affiliative style. That is certainly her intention, she says.

She aims for a leadership model that is focused on people connections and on building strong relationships with people. In this time of vast technological change, we need our human connections more than ever, she says.

“Where you get that magic and chemistry is when people work together.” And she sees her style as coming from the school of ‘servant-leaders’.

“I often describe my role as making the pathway clear for the team and to get out of their way, but to make sure they have the skills and resources they need to allow them to get on with the job.”

She says there is a shift from the 1980s command and control model or the iconic rock star CEO. Things have moved away from that model as the challenge in the workplace is the complexity and speed that judgements have to be made. Today leaders are not often making decisions within known parameters.

“For that to occur you have to empower people.” 

It is a cultural shift and an expectation from the workforce and from the wider community of stakeholders. 

She says there is an expectation of consultative and inclusiveness with the wider community and today leaders have to have a broader range of relationships. They are as much managing a community as they are managing a team. That needs quite different skills. 

The team and community may evolve and self-select, it may include contractors, gig workers in an agile working environment, people working at a distance, even globally, and people with flexible working arrangements.

Patterson sees the skills a leader needs today as having a big emphasis on communication skills, being able to establish relationships and the EQ to understand where that relationship is at and to do that at speed.

“It all comes down to establishing trust and being able to offer trust in relationships. Leading in this changing environment requires a level of agility and flexibility from leaders themselves.”

So it is the age old traits such as being humble and a servant leader, that make great leaders?

Brad Stringer says these traits are still integral to great leadership.

“We live in a time where we can see the interconnectedness of the various systems we live in, and servant leaders with a systems perspective are desperately needed.

“Leaders need to be working with an understanding of where their organisation sits in these systems and how their decisions ripple out and affect the wider community.”

Stringer also notes you can only learn to be a leader. It takes time, practice and support to consolidate the types of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable successful leaders to thrive. 

“Leadership is incredibly hard and people should be encouraged to see it as a learnt process so that leaders feel able to speak out when they are struggling without threatening their standing.”

His clients use The Leadership Circle Profile and Stringer says the most powerful aspect of it is that not only does it help measure desired aspects of leadership, but it measures common habits and beliefs that undermine someone’s leadership.

“It connects these with desirable, creative traits shown to correlate strongly with successful leaders, not only giving leaders a clear picture of where their struggles lie but also a pathway forward to develop as leaders.”

So, what do leaders admire the most in other leaders?

“Maintaining focus and composure in a fast-paced, short-term environment where they are constantly pressured by and judged on short-term performance outcomes. Many connect this with the ability to delegate and share authority,” says Stringer.

As to The Leadership Circle’s advice to aspiring leaders Stringer says you need to have a clear purpose for your leadership. 

“You need to know what you are offering others with your leadership. If your aspirations reek of self-interest, others will sense it and will avoid it. Listen twice as much as you talk.”  

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