Alpha Leadership

Tools for Business Leaders Who Want More from Life
By Anne Deering Robert Dilts Julian Russell

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-84483-3


This book describes a new model of leadership. We call it Alpha Leadership.

The approaches and tools we present here offer you ways to be successful as a business leader, ways to reduce stress and to promote happiness, at a time when these goals seem impossible for most people struggling to make sense of the workplace and its demands.

Alpha Leadership is a product of conversations between the three authors about what makes a leader successful - a sharing of case studies and research that has taken place over the last four years, during a period of unprecedented change in the business environment.

Despite our different backgrounds and experience, we were struck by the commonality in our research on successful leaders. It seemed that a new set of basic themes of leadership was emerging, that was consistent on both sides of the Atlantic, across traditional businesses as diverse as manufacturing and financial services, dot.coms through boom and bust, and the emergent dot.corps.

Our work showed that those who have led their organizations to survive and thrive in a turbulent world excelled in three separate but related dimensions that we call Anticipate, Align and Act.

By 'anticipate' we mean the ability and the eagerness to detect and respond to weak signals or trends, in order to 'get ahead of the curve'. Successful leaders have the mental agility to respond appropriately to these signals, and create organizations fluid enough to respond quickly to new circumstances.

By 'align' we mean achieving congruence in your own values and desires, and the values and desires of others, so that you can create coalitions and aligned organizations able to act effectively in pursuit of the business's goals.

Much management effort is being devoted these days to winning hearts and minds, and inducing people to commit to visions and missions, in the belief that belief itself will galvanize effective action. Usually, however, the visions stimulate nothing but apathy. As a senior executive said to us recently, 'I pull every lever available to me in the organization and nothing happens. It's like pushing on Jello, it just springs back.' The Alpha test of effective leadership is the degree to which people's feet are engaged and, more importantly, the direction in which they are walking.

In other words, anticipation and alignment are worth nothing without appropriate and timely action. Ultimately, actions are all that separate business winners from losers. By 'Act' we mean establishing what is important to achieve the business's goals, and doggedly persisting in areas that make a difference.

At the heart of all three dimensions lie clarity and constancy of purpose - the business's and the leader's. Successful leaders focus and stretch the business's goals, are clear about how the business creates value and have a strong sense of connection between their personal mission and their business role.

Alpha Leadership is our attempt to describe and synthesize these themes.

The genesis of an idea

We developed the Alpha Leadership model based on a wide range of research and experience. We have each worked with business leaders for more than 15 years, from Silicon Valley to rust belt industries, in the United States, Europe and Asia, and in contexts as diverse as traditional management consultancy, the development of a psychological discipline (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and its application in business, venture 'catalysm' and funding, and the modelling of leadership behaviour spanning decades of business performance.

As our conclusions took shape, we became increasingly convinced that traditional approaches to leadership place far too much emphasis on action, and not nearly enough emphasis on anticipation and alignment. It is the volatility of the environments, and the networked, knowledge-based nature of the organizations in which action has to be taken, that make anticipation and alignment so crucial. We observed that leadership skills that are key to success in today's corporate world are not taught in business schools, are rarely discussed by business academics, and are not recognized within corporations as they recruit, promote and train their staff.

We noticed that business conversation was all about the 'war for talent' - and yet the solutions presented were all 'outside-in' (what the corporation needed to do to ensure people stayed, to 'make' their values align, to retain them) rather than 'inside-out' (the alignment of an individual's sense of purpose with how he or she spends time at work, and the fit of an individual's skills to the demands of the job).

In writing this book we sought to fill some of these gaps in the lexicon of leadership.

Work-life balance?

It is impossible to write a book about leadership in the 21st century without making reference to work-life balance. The statistics are daunting: 76% of managers want to spend more time with their families; 50% say they feel too mentally and physically exhausted to do anything but work or sleep; 30% say their lives are out of control; one in five say they are too stressed to enjoy their lives at all.

And yet we have never been more materially successful: we earn more than ever before, we have more purchasing power, more leisure travel and our children have more material possessions.

So what is going wrong? An extreme imbalance seems to be at work, where success in the workplace spells dismal failure in other parts of our lives. We are all familiar with the symptoms of today's executive malaise - knowing the airport lounge better than your own living room, pushing the 'door close' button on the lift because five seconds is too long a wait, children who are happier being comforted after a nightmare by granny, nanny or the babysitter (just about anyone but you, the parent), the overwhelming sense of overload and the desperate feeling that there is no way out.

There is a way out. We believe that with a new definition of leadership, and with some practical tools and approaches that can be readily applied in our daily lives as leaders, we can take control over our business lives and enjoy living them again. We need a different model of business leadership if company leaders are to learn how to do their job of making things happen, without becoming what one senior executive's spouse called 'vice president of long hours and no fun'.

It is not work that is the problem. It is the way we manage and prioritize work, and the need for alignment between what really matters to us and how we spend our waking hours.

We believe that 'work-life balance' is itself a misnomer. Work is clearly an important part of life, and it is unhelpful to polarize it as something other than, and at odds with, the rest of our lives. We believe the answer lies in integration rather than balance, making sense of our work lives so that we understand and accept how the hours invested at work fit into our overall sense of purpose, and learning how to work smart rather than hard, so that we can release time from work to be spent at home, at leisure and in the community.

The tools and approaches in the chapters that follow will help you to achieve these aims.

Tips for navigation

Alpha Leadership takes an 'inside-out' view of leadership, starting with the individual and his or her values and sense of purpose, rather than the conventional 'outside-in' approach, which holds up examples of great leaders that all aspiring leaders should try to emulate, irrespective of what kind of people they are and what kind of situations they find themselves in.

Our aim was to write a practical, 'how to' book, derived from our experience of one-to-one executive coaching, leadership development, start-up company greenhouses and business consulting. We provide readers with ideas, tools, approaches and frameworks that will help them perform better as business leaders and feel better as human beings.

Each chapter starts with a parable or story, which usually has nothing much to do with business, but which we believe sheds interesting light on issues and problems facing business leaders. This is followed by a 'sense making' section that interprets the story and relates it to real-life examples. Each chapter ends with a set of tools designed to help you develop, exploit and adapt the ideas and concepts covered by the chapter.

In accordance with the journalistic rule 'say what you're going to say, say it, and then say what you've said', the book begins with this introduction to the book's main themes, explores them in detail in three parts under the headings 'Anticipate', 'Align' and 'Act', and ends with a short, concluding chapter sketching out the overall shape and content of Alpha Leadership.

Part I focuses on 'anticipation'. Chapter 1, Detecting Weak Signals, examines the dilemma created by the conflict between ensuring that action is both appropriate and timely in a rapidly changing business environment. For action to be appropriate, it must be based on an intimate understanding of the circumstances, but action will only be timely if it is taken before the circumstances become clear.

Only by detecting and reacting to the 'weak signals' that precede the strong can company leaders keep the organizations in their care on the leading rather than on the trailing edge of business evolution. Weak signals must be their 'stock-in-trade' because, by the time business opportunities or threats are clear and unambiguous, it is too late to exploit or evade them.

In Chapter 2, Developing Mental Agility, we look at some of the qualities necessary for leaders to be able to respond to weak signals effectively. Mental agility is the basic requirement, but it is not enough on its own. Leaders also need open spaces to be mentally agile within. Agile leaders see the circumstances that confront them from a variety of perspectives. They are fixed in their purpose, they constantly reevaluate their goals, and are extremely flexible in the means they adopt to achieve those goals. They know when to be unusually creative within the bounds of their current objectives, and when to leap over those boundaries and propose something entirely new. They equip themselves with a range of options, and they keep as many as possible of those options open, for as long as possible.

Chapter 3, Freeing-up Resources, focuses on the qualities organizations need if the mental agility of their leaders is to make things happen. However sensitive they are to weak signals, and however flexible they are when interpreting them, leaders will be unable to trigger timely and appropriate action unless their organizations can rechannel energy and redeploy resources, quickly. When resources are 'locked up' in existing assignments by structures, rules or habits, the organization will be unable to respond to opportunities and threats effectively, and its powers of 'self-organization' will be frustrated.

The relationship between the leader and the led is so fundamental that we devote the whole of Part II to it. The theme in these three chapters is 'alignment': the mostly tacit negotiations that go on between the leader and the led, the outcomes of which form the basis of their relationship and so determine the 'leadability' of the organization. Leaders must find ways to stimulate concerted, as well as appropriate and timely action. Everyone has to be ready to act effectively and quickly. The whole organization has to be on the surfboard, waiting for the wave before the crest forms.

In Chapter 4, Leading Through Embodiment, we look at the contribution the leader's personality and style can make to the alignment of an organization. The central idea in the story of Monty Roberts, the 'Horse Whisperer', is that although horses will run away from strange humans at the slightest provocation, they will follow and 'join up' with interesting humans who appear to pose no threat to them. We share with horses a desire to join up, join in and be part of something. We shy away from forceful demands for loyalty and commitment, but we flock to and swarm round focal points where 'cool stuff' seems either to be happening or about to happen. Good leaders work with our hunger to involve ourselves, with others, in interesting work and exciting projects. They influence and seduce, rather than command, and try to become 'attractors', as complexity scientists put it - the embodiments of attractive energy, the centre of the swarm.

But leaders can only be attractive, in this sense, when they themselves are truly aligned. Alignment starts from the inside, out: being sure of who you are and what your 'calling' is, understanding and projecting your values and abilities, and ensuring that these inner qualities and resources are fully aligned. In short, there is no substitute for being an authentic and coherent person. That is not to say you need to be perfect: your faults don't matter if you know what you are good at, work on your weaknesses and don't pretend to be anything you are not. Just as horses will only follow if you look like you know where you're going, and it looks like a good place to go, so, too, today's leaders need a high degree of internal alignment before they start asking others to follow them.

Chapter 5, Task Through Relationship, shifts the focus from the leader to the relationship between the leader and the led. We explore the distinction made by Mary Parker Follett between 'power over', and 'power with'. Follett was the first management writer to address the difficult problem of authority in business, and to question the 'right' a leader has to issue orders. She concluded that 'one person should not give orders to another person ... both should agree to take their orders from the situation'.

The so-called 'war for talent' is evidence that many modern company leaders are routinely flouting Follett's 'law of the situation', by failing to take fully into account the wider interests of their employees.

Chapter 6, Creating Cultures That Can Act, concludes Part II by bringing leader and led together again, and exploring the cultures that emerge from their relationships. We argue that not all organizations that are aligned with the laws of the situation and have leaders who can anticipate, acquire cultures that can act.

Rogues and mavericks play a vital role in action-oriented cultures, because there is a tendency for organizations to become wedded to assumptions about the way they do business and their strengths and weaknesses. These embedded (often unconscious) mental models and points of view need to be reviewed regularly if the organization is to remain healthy and alert. Rogues and mavericks can keep their organizations honest, but only when the leader values them and acknowledges their right to speak out and criticize.


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