The list of “what makes a good leader” is a long one. It’s as if we’ve taken every positive human quality and made it into a requirement for effective leadership.

“It’s time to step back and take a different approach,” Senior Fellow Cindy McCauley asserts in our white paper Making Leadership Happen.

Instead of focusing only on individual leaders and their capabilities, we need to examine how the whole system is involved in making it happen. We need to look at various dynamics including the exchanges between managers and employees, the interactions among team members, the quality of relationships throughout the organization, and the enactment of organizational processes.

How can you tell if leadership is happening in a team, in a work group, on a task force, or across the organization? Look for 3 important outcomes: direction, alignment, and commitment (or DAC).

Direction is agreement on what the group is trying to achieve together. Alignment is effective coordination and integration of the different aspects of the work so that it fits together in service of the shared direction. Commitment is when people are making the success of the collective (not just their individual success) a personal priority.

“We think the only way to know if leadership has happened is to look for the presence of these 3 outcomes,” McCauley explains.

So how do you, as a manager, make it happen in your organization? Here are 3 important strategies:

Pay attention to whether leadership is happening. Start looking for evidence of DAC. By paying attention to outcomes, you will not only begin to discern where more is needed, but you will also start to see the kinds of processes and interactions that are producing the desired levels of direction, alignment, and commitment.

Make more leadership happen. First, when you notice that there aren’t many leadership processes in place, create them. For example, do you need to meet more regularly with your peers to prioritize work in a matrixed organization (to create more alignment)?

Secondly, when there are useful leadership processes in place, make sure people have the skills to participate in them effectively. When a new strategic initiative is being launched, will your staff be able to take part in (not just show up to) the community meetings the CEO is holding (to create more shared direction)?

And finally, when existing leadership processes no longer seem to be producing the needed direction, alignment, and commitment, explore new ones. Does a more diverse group of people need to be involved (to create more direction)? Are clearer accountability structures needed (to create more alignment)? Are more honest conversations about proposed changes needed (to create more commitment)?

Improve your own ability to participate in cultivating leadership. Back to those long lists of leader capabilities. It’s useful to continually deepen and broaden your individual skills and abilities. With a broader repertoire of capabilities you’ll be able to participate more effectively in a wide range of processes. Often the difficult question is “Where should I focus my development efforts?”

One lens for examining this question is DAC. If there was one place in your organization where you would desperately like to see more DAC, where would that be? Then what would you need to get better at so that more leadership happens in that setting?

Finally, don’t undertake these 3 strategies alone! Talk to people about where direction, alignment, and commitment are happening and where they aren’t; enlist others in your experiments with new leadership processes; seek input on how to improve your own capabilities. Leadership is shared work — at the end of the day, you can only make it happen with others.

This article is adapted from Making Leadership Happen, a white paper by Cynthia McCauley.

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