Leadership: Part Flexibility and Part Structure

Posted by Bruce W. Woolpert on Mar 18, 2015

Professor Dean Chemers, Vice-Provost and Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has studied organizational leadership approaches and has a strong mastery of research and literature on the subject. In September, 1998, Bruce W. Woolpert summarized some of his thinking for Construction Update readers. What was written then holds true today.

For effective leadership to exist in an organization, whether it is a private business, government, educational or non-profit institution, there must be a stable environment in which people can come to know and understand what the organization is all about. Leaders must practice approaches which are flexible and able to change to fit the situation, and also structured with consistent, expectable and clearly articulated rules and direction. 

Stable environments generate trust when they arise from consistent processes and goals. In other words, the organization has staked out a way of organizing, getting things done and setting goals and everyone can count on it to continue. If approaches and goals constantly change, trust cannot develop and leadership will be unsuccessful. When environments are stable, a “shared meaning” is allowed to develop about how things get done and what needs to get done.

Highly successful leaders rely on both science and art. A skillful leader operates in both a tight and flexible fashion, depending on the needs of the situation. All good leaders share two attributes: confidence in his or her own abilities and optimism that things will work out okay. Extensive research gives us insight into an effective leader’s day to day practices.

  1. Leaders perform like leaders all the time. They practice honesty and integrity faithfully, and trust other people to do a good job.

  2. Leaders build relationships. They view their relationships with others not from a group perspective, but as individuals. Coaching and support is offered to encourage individual accomplishment and success, and it varies depending upon the needs of each person. By caring strongly about people, a good leader automatically motivates others to care about their own work and accomplishments. Finally, a strong leader never shows any doubt about an individual’s ability to succeed.

  3. Leaders mobilize people. A leader displays the confidence that goals and obstacles can be accomplished despite great difficulties ahead. This is not an act, but rather an inner strength which gives a leader a very high level of self confidence and confidence in each individual’s abilities. By sharing this belief, others come to accept the possibility that goals will be achieved. Confidence is increased because beliefs about what’s possible have been enhanced. Without such increased and changed beliefs, an organization’s “horsepower” is capped at historic levels. 

People increase their efficacy or capacity (ability to do what they might gave previously thought impossible) by setting increasingly higher goals. This graduated mastery, along with role modeling made possible by watching others perform more difficult jobs and social persuasion, or the fear of being left behind, help move the organization forward.

In summary, organizations without leadership lack horsepower and in today’s world cannot be expected to survive for long. A strong leader is always honest and steadfast in integrity, deeply believes in and cares about people and their ability to grow and stretch, and displays confidence in the group’s ability to accomplish tough goals. Leaders must be consistent and lead 100% of the time. With this need for consistency, leaders cannot be successful if their behavior is just an act, because they’ll eventually slip up and vaporize everything they have built up. What took months and years to build can be destroyed in a moment, and trust and shared beliefs can be lost with one poor decision.

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