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The Most Important Skill of High Performance Leadership

by | Apr 27, 2021

Workplace engagement is one of the most critical factors for creating and sustaining job satisfaction, productivity and a healthy bottom line. Organisations with high rates of engagement consistently outperform their sector benchmarks for growth across a range of financials.

Leadership experts Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner found that nothing impacts engagement more than the behaviour of leaders. As much as 37 per cent of employee engagement can be attributed to the boss’s leadership behaviour.

Leading from and embodying values and integrity, inspiring a shared vision and common purpose, staying open to continually learning, challenging oneself and others, enabling and developing others, building trusting relationships and recognising others for great work—these are the qualities of high performance leadership.

Jim and Barry have analysed responses from more than 2.5 million people across the world and found that leaders who exhibit the behaviours mentioned above have employees who are significantly more committed, proud, motivated, loyal and productive. In groups with exemplary leaders, engagement scores are 25 to 50 per cent higher than in other groups.i

Note that what lead to these stark differences were leadership behaviours, not technical competencies. When leaders fail, it is rarely related to technical competence. The x-factor in high performance leadership is behaviour.

High Performance Leadership Depends on Self-Awareness

The key to high performance leadership, which in turn leads to workplace engagement, is self-awareness; we can’t change our behaviour until we see what actually needs to change. Therefore, the single most important skill of high performance leadership is self-awareness.

Self-awareness comes from the cultivation of genuine mindfulness, married with leadership research and practice. This combination enables you to truly see and manage your behaviour in real time, which is when it really matters.

A mindfulness client of mine, VP of a large technology consulting firm, shared with me how mindfulness impacts her quest for high performance leadership on a daily basis. First and foremost, she said, it helps her to understand herself. It reveals her triggers and where her values may be misaligned. It helps her observe how she reacts to thing.

As she put it, “I need to be very aware and attentive to what’s going on with me so I can be attentive, aware and present for others. We all have crazy lives and it’s easy to just go, go, go, constantly fighting fires and dealing with issues. Mindfulness practice ensures I don’t lose myself or my values in the chaos. When I’m more present with people it creates a much more genuine interaction rather than just intellectual problem solving. It really helps me to connect with people on a deeper, more human level. We’re all hungry for that because it’s so easy to feel like a cog in a wheel in the corporate world.”

The equation is simple: Highly engaged organisations are more profitable and effective. The key to improving your organisation’s engagement is your leadership behaviour. And mindfulness — the practical application of self-awareness — is the most effective method for recognising and improving your behaviour.

Self-awareness enables personal accountability—an essential quality of high performance leadership. As the late leadership guru Stephen R. Covey said, “As long as you think the problem is out there, that very thought is the problem.”

Michael, a senior executive and consultant, explained to me how tuning in to his senses helped him develop emotional intelligence in his work. When he focuses on his senses he feels like things slow down, which gives him greater clarity. Michael feels this is particularly important for him because he is conceptual and intuitive, and his mind moves fast, which can harm his relationships by preventing him from listening closely. When people start talking to him he’s already thinking ahead to his reply. By tuning in to his breathing and grounding himself, he’s able to sit and really listen.

More than just teaching him to listen, the process has taught him empathy, a critical high performance leadership skill. As Michael explained:

“You can’t do anything long term through a position of authority. You can only get people on board when you empathise with them and take them on a journey with you. You have to get people together and get a consensus, and my job is to influence that outcome.

“I can’t just shove my vision down from the top of the ladder. Without empathy, people will resist and I won’t be able to accomplish the goals.

“For me, the key to developing empathy has been mindfulness. Before getting into mindfulness work I had no idea how to develop self-awareness. But mindfulness taught me simple breathing exercises that allowed me to become more aware of my body and senses, which provided the pathway to even greater self-awareness.

“So any time I feel tense, like I’m entering a zone in which I could start losing self-management, I tune in to my breath and it calms me down. I always come back to that in my leadership.”

Michael understood that self-awareness in action really is mindfulness, and this combination is incredibly important for high performance leadership.

Mindfulness gives us both the insight to recognise that we are accountable and the tools for shifting into a new way of being, behaving and seeing the world that reduces our suffering and that of others.

Does High Performance Leadership Based on Self-Awareness Boost the Bottom Line?

Self-awareness does more than improve leader-employee relations. According to research by Korn Ferry, the world’s largest executive search firm, there is a direct correlation between leaders’ self-awareness and company profitability. The company analysed almost 7000 self-assessments from professionals at 486 publicly traded companies to identify the “blind spots” in individuals’ leadership characteristics. A blind spot is defined as a skill the professional counts among his or her strengths, when co-workers see that same skill as one of the professional’s weaknesses.

The analysis demonstrated that in poor-performing companies, on average professionals: had 20 per cent more blind spots than those working at financially strong companies, and were 79 per cent more likely to have low overall self-awareness than those at firms with strong rates of return. Poor self-awareness doesn’t just make leaders harder to work with, it also takes a direct blow at company profitability.

Joy Hazucha, global vice-president of the Korn Ferry Institute, commented, “Self-awareness can directly translate into better choices and results in more fulfilling careers. On the other hand, those with low self-awareness tend to scramble the messages they receive concerning improvement, interpreting them as a threat rather than an opportunity.”

High performance leaders who cultivate the courage to take an honest look at themselves find that taking accountability can have far greater impact on their business than any strategy, initiative or marketing campaign.

High Performance Leaders Need Personal Accountability

Mindfulness is a method for increasing habitual, constant awareness. When we fail to take accountability and to self-reflect, or when we fail to be self-aware, we cause ourselves more stress and suffering, even despair. We believe there is no way out of our stress except for the external world to change, yet we also know deep down that we have no control over it. In fact, this is one of our greatest sources of stress. It leaves us in a constant state of low-grade anxiety.

The only way out of this stress is to take accountability for our mindset, emotions, and behaviour. Furthermore, accountability is a critical factor in boosting high performance leadership.

A client of mine, an HR director of a hospital and healthcare firm, shared with me how mindfulness and self-awareness helped him cut through the stress that had dominated his life, and really address the root of his suffering. “Before mindfulness training I struggled to accept the role I had played in bad situations. But now, when things go wrong, I’m really quite comfortable asking myself, ‘What could I have done differently?’ Mindfulness has given me a greater level of self-awareness, which enables me to more reflectively understand cause and effect, and to see my responsibility in all situations.”

Seeing our responsibility in a given situation might feel uncomfortable at first, but it actually serves as a gateway to freedom and a catalyst to high performance leadership. Rather than burying our mistakes and hurts, self-awareness allows us to honestly acknowledge them, and through doing so allows the stress they cause to be short-lived, to come and go.

The truth is that we find solutions and relief only as we turn inward, which is why self-awareness is so important to high performance leadership. As the Dalai Lama said, “When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.”

We discover a profound strength and comfort in the truth that the answer to every problem lies within us in the present moment. And this truth is the secret to high performance leadership.

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