November 2014Leadership

Are You Leading by Default?

Are You Leading by Default?

What are the most important qualities of a leader? … Charisma? Strength? Vision? It turns out, according to a study conducted at Cornell University, the strongest predictor of overall leadership success isn’t any of them. Instead, it’s high self-awareness — the quality that provides you with a clear picture of your behaviors, your effectiveness, and, perhaps most important, your impact on those around you.

But although it’s vital, strengthening this skill isn’t easy. Janet Greco, who has been co-directing Wharton’s Leading and Managing People for the past 18 years, says many people don’t develop it until late in their career — if at all. “This kind of learning is hard to do by yourself, and it can take time. The program acts as an accelerant. We help you learn what you need to know about yourself and your leadership capabilities when you need that knowledge most.”

Greco and Greg Shea, co-author of Leading Successful Change, work with executives over five days, providing them with a number of lenses through which to see themselves as people and as leaders. Shea explains, “This is an action-oriented program. You get a lot of feedback, plus best practices and research. We use the Hogan Personality Inventory, which, for general usage, is the best personality profile. It shows you quickly who you are, what you have to work with, and where there are opportunities for development.”

In addition to the Hogan Inventory, the program includes a team leadership exercise that provides another layer of feedback. During a debriefing, participants get to see how their strengths and weaknesses played out in real time. “After the exercise,” says Greco, “we use the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument [HBDI], which was designed to identify your thinking preferences. The HBDI illuminates the information you got from the exercise. It’s interesting to see how you brought your assets to the task — or not.”

She continues, “Some of your strengths need to be left behind when you are in the leadership role, and others need to be developed. You don’t need to resort to your ‘default setting’ in every situation. The program helps you to be more intentional about identifying the levers you need and how to develop them if they are not already in your arsenal. You come away with a wider range of possible responses.”

The levers Greco refers to include those of positive organization politics and power, stakeholder management, leading change, and leadership stories. Participants don’t just learn about them; they are given multiple opportunities to practice new approaches. Each afternoon small-group Master Classes provide a safe environment to rehearse new techniques and get rapid peer feedback. Participants are asked to come to the program with an issue they are stuck on. They then apply what they are learning during the week to that issue. In the Master Classes, they explore options and get coaching from a very neutral, and very diverse, group. “It’s very difficult to find this kind of wise and impartial learning environment in the real world,” says Greco.

“It’s rare to be observed by people you don’t work with. They’re not your boss or your direct reports or your competitors. And because the program attracts a diverse group of executives, you will be coached not only by faculty but also by those of different nationalities, ages, industries, and functions.” Greco says it can be surprising to discover that leaders in India, Nigeria, Brazil, and Australia share the same challenges. “Executives come from Africa, Asia, and South America. We are sending them back out into environments of all kinds. If we can enhance the likelihood that they and their colleagues will accomplish or even exceed their mission, that is a wonderful outcome.”

Greco routinely receives correspondence from past participants who describe the remarkable positive changes they were able to make. Considering how difficult it is to change adult default settings, the results are impressive. “In the end, this is reasonably personal work,” notes Shea. “It requires you to reflect on and process new information and feedback. We provide an environment that gives you both the time and the safety you need to do that.”