No one owns the definition of leadership


When you arrive at that point in your career when you get a dawning realisation that you are a “senior leader” an odd thing can happen. There is a moment that many leaders reach and share with me, where they find they are struggling to define leadership for themselves. They are surrounded by Executive peers and Board members who are already well-established and who are leading in a way that at least appears comfortable and confident. These ‘new’ senior leaders find themselves further away from their comfort zones and wrestling to find a way of operating where they can feel comfortable and satisfy what is required from them in their new elevated position.

The result is that many such leaders, in an attempt to avoid some degree of imposter syndrome, take one or more of the following approaches:
1. Engage a leadership mentor
2. Try to copy those already in senior positions
3. Sign up for an Executive education programme at a Business School
4. Read lots of books on leadership

Thing is, these aren’t the best place to start the process of defining leadership for yourself. Let’s look at each briefly before exploring where you’ll definitely want to start the journey of becoming an outstanding senior leader.


What a great resource leadership mentors can be. Insightful in providing new leaders with both short-cuts and red-flags that help save time (vital) and avoid major screw-ups (even more vital!). Providing a “this is how I did it” approach, can be a life-saver for new Executive leaders. Mentors can also offer a sense of not being alone and having a critical friend in moments of real need.

Copy-cat leadership

I have written often that leaders are never not role modelling. Your team members, Boss and peers are always watching you, even sub-consciously. So, leaders are always being observed and judged, but by definition, they are also often being the observer of other leaders. This can result in the very common “I’d never do it like that” awareness, when leaders see something that they would not condone doing if the roles were reversed. Whilst this deficit approach to learning-by-watching is common, leaders watching other leaders in order to learn some positives seems less prevalent but is still a good way for new leaders to learn how to lead.

Executive Education

Exec education can work incredibly well when there is evidence-based input that is highly applicable to the real world in which Executives work. Learning that is designed to ensure that leadership development happens through undertaking real work, ensures that leaders can see how to apply what they have learned, back in the work-place. Rolling out keynote speakers with a view/experience to share can also be useful. Another great advantage of attending such Exec development is the networking with other professionals that may prove helpful over a life-time of leadership.

Reading Leadership Material

I love to read the latest leadership book. I absorb key thoughts from a wide range of books over the course of a year. Assimilating diverse ideas and cherry-picking concepts that resonate for me, helps me keep developing my own leadership approach in an ongoing way. The challenge with many leaders in relation to reading leadership ideas, is they’ll pursue one idea until the next shiny idea comes along. The sound-track goes a bit like this: “Oooh Authentic Leadership … I love that … What’s this? Integrated Leadership … Very cool and soooo me!! … YES! … Values-based leadership … I’m on it!” etc etc etc. Well-intentioned learning can end up looking a bit desperate and feel, for those you lead, to be pretty inconsistent. That inconsistency prompts uncertainty and that uncertaintly negatively impacts your effectiveness as a leader.

So where to start?

Start by acknowledging that only you will do leadership the way you are going to do it. Your version of senior leadership will never have been witnessed before and will never be seen again, in exactly the way you are going to do it. Recognise that learning from others – be they mentors, peers, instructors or authors – is helpful but never the answer on its own.

“No-one owns the definition of senior leadership but what is critical for you is that you have a definition of it for you.”

Working on developing your version of leadership is always time well spent.

– What sort of leader you want to be
– Your view of how and where you can add most value
– What values you hold dear and won’t compromise

These are all activities that will guide how you behave as a senior leader. You will have some areas of flexibility and others where you will stand fast. You will understand the current context and how your leadership will work here but also have deep roots that will guide how you want to lead, irrespective of context.

Working this out for yourself does several things, including speeds up decision-making, reduces anxiety and increases self-confidence. Not bad results for a relatively little bit of proactive thinking!

If you need help defining your version of senior or executive leadership for yourself, Glenn Wallis has a proven track-record of working with successfully with leaders just like you. You can contact him here when you are sure you are ready to get serious about leadership.

Are males or females better executive leaders? (1)

martial-arts-picWhen I was a Judo International, representing GB, in a time long before my grey hair appeared and the lower back pain kicked in, I would often join my peers discussing a philosophical question. Now, if you had been privy to the cohort of judoka that I rubbed along with back in the mid-1980s, you really wouldn’t have expected any of us to engage in philosophical discussion but the same scenario was presented and discussed ad nauseum. 

The question we argued over was this: If you had a highly experienced and skilled (in throws/holds) Judoka and put them in a contest against an equally experienced and skilled (in punches/kicks) Karateka, which of these would win in a contest with rules that allowed both styles to be used?

There are far too many errors in the question, let alone the underlying assumptions, to start to unpick it here, nevertheless, it was a working topic of much debate.

And that got me to thinking …

If you had a highly experienced and skilled male executive leader and you found a way to compare them to an equally experienced and skilled female executive leader counterpart, which of these would be considered more effective in their leadership role?

I have a view. But more of that later.

Let’s for starters accept that there are lots of flaws to the question – some philosophical (e.g. What is leadership? … YAWN! What is experience? … MORE interesting!) and some are practical (e.g. How would you ever find two leaders with exactly the same experience? Surely they would be doing the same job in the same organisation … SMILE-inducing!). But if we can put those things aside, what would we need in order to make such a comparison and who would win? (Oh!! Indulge me for a minute, I get that you can’t win in this context – it’s just a bit of thought-provoking fun!)

The first part of this post will look at how you would benchmark these two mythical leaders – important as a starting point; vital if we are going to be able to decide ultimately who might be the more effective leader.

Point scoring on Revenue

Deciding who wins a judo contest is relatively simple: Fighters are awarded differentiated points for throws and holds against their opponent or they can be penalised for foul play. The most points or the least penalties (or a combination) produces our winner. So, measuring, albeit relatively subjective, is possible.

Measuring executive leaders is a fascinating task. When measuring the effectiveness of senior leadership, many will draw the line quite simply at the bottom – because that is where shareholders and key stakeholders will be looking first. Profit, after all, is king (or queen). The simplicity of such a measure is helpful and clear. Are there any reasons why achieving a healthy bottom line would be different between our fictitious male and female leaders? All things being equal, I think not (But things in the Executive Leadership space are not quite equal, as I’m sure you’ll recognise.)

The weakness of using only the financial measures to see how effective leaders are, is that their apparent success, can be helped hugely by the vagaries of the market place. We all know CEOs who head highly profitable organisations, thanks in large part to economic fluctuations. It’s not that economic success isn’t really important – of course it is – but leader effectiveness is not wholly represented by this measure. Points gained here by leaders, need to be put in the context of the wider business cycles.

Point Scoring for Style

Some Executive Leaders will have been ‘measured’ within an inch of their life with various forms of psychometric tests such as MBTI(r) Insights (r) and other such tools over their careers. My own bias and my own philosophical view of human beings, is wholly opposed to the use of such tools in my own practice, whilst simultaneously acknowledging their usefulness for some leaders. There are also other measurement tools, such as 360 profiling,  that ask the leader and others, to reflect on the leader’s strengths and capabilities, as they are displayed at a given point in time. This is usually done against a leadership framework. These tools work well, as they help identify that the leader is not in a fixed state but a starting point from which further development is possible. These tools usually provide pointers to where development efforts should be directed.

Some of these profiling tools throw up statistically significant differences between the genders. One such difference that springs to mind is the higher percentage of Empathy that females tend to possess. They are often really good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. This difference could be important in relation to leadership effectiveness. Similarly, an important factor that positively impacts male leaders is that they tend to have a stronger view about their abilities as transformational leaders than comparable women leaders. The good news is that (generalisations aside for a moment) male leaders are able to develop their empathic abilities and female leaders can positively develop their views of their transformational leadership self-efficacy. I know. I’ve seen leaders in both scenarios make incredible and lasting changes.

Similar but different

So, in our mythical leadership contest, it is possible to measure both the starting point and a given end point of a leaders’ effectiveness. The skills they possess and the impact that they make can be measured both directly and indirectly. Whilst every leader is an individual regardless of gender, for our purposes, both male and female leaders are clearly capable of scoring well in both direct and indirect measures – just differently. Organisations would do well to create cultures and environments where both our leaders could maximise the strengths they have and also have space to develop the areas within which they are not so strong.

In the next part of this mini-series, we’ll look at how leaders operate and practise the art of leadership. We’ll get to see if we can discover any key differences that might help us find a winner in our own leadership contest of the genders.

Glenn Wallis develops outstanding leaders who help contribute to the long-term success of organisations. If you would like to discuss how he can do that for your organisation, please contact him here.



Me? Exec. development? Of course: Because I’m worth it

Exec developmetn

What tends to happen to your own development the more senior you become as a leader?

Yep. It tends to be put on the back burner and you – often for very laudable reasons – support everyone else’s opportunity to grab some L&D, before or in the place of you engaging in development for yourself.

The reasons executives tend to do this are many and varied, including:

  • Selflessness
  • Cost consciousness
  • Sense of being skilled enough
  • Not a priority
  • Insufficient time

Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail in order to help you make a case (to you) for keeping up some development for yourself:


When the reason for senior execs not engaging in development is genuinely that they want to give others the time and the space to do so, it can be a very generous gesture and one that others appreciate deeply. As a strategy it is fine to adopt in the short or medium-term, just make sure it doesn’t become a long-term approach as the pace of change in the business world requires that your own skills as a leader need sharpening often,

Cost Consciousness

Nah, Not having it. I appreciate the sentiment for quoting cost awareness as a reason for senior execs not engaging in their own development but in my experience it is usually an excuse for not actually wanting to undertake development at all. Cost consciousness also misses the key point for me: As the most senior leaders in the organisation you have the greatest reach and influence. As a result you have the opportunity to add the greatest value to the greatest number. Therefore, the better you are able to lead, the greater the positive influence you are able to exercise.

It maybe that you are unable to afford any development as a company – fine. But when things improve, ensure senior leader development is back on the agenda early.

Skilled enough

This is a regular mistake. You may be skilled enough as the Lawyer, Finance Director or Human Resource Director but what about as a person and as a leader? Are you the finished article in these areas and disciplines? I know you are not arrogant enough to suggest you are, so please don’t stop developing your leadership skills and evolving as a human being just because you have a seat at the top table – it’s short-sighted and will limit your career and effectiveness.

Not a priority

Wrong. In order for you to meet the ever changing situations and contexts in which you lead, development should always be a priority. Getting better at what you do is not just a result of attending a Business School programme or engaging a mentor. It might be that you prioritise reading a respected trade or leadership journal every month; it might be as simple as creating an hour a week to review your own performance as an Executive in order to inform how you might do even better next week. Whatever routes you pursue to access your development, ensure that it remains a priority.

Insufficient time

Of all the reasons Executives give for not engaging in their own development this (closely related to several other reasons) is the most oft quoted. I don’t buy it. If you prioritise development sufficiently then you can and will find the time for it. I find it ironic that people often talk to me about their time pressures during a two hour coaching session … ? The other option is to engage in your development outside of work hours, especially where that work is much more strategic in nature, such as developmental coaching. Stop watching the latest season of Game of Thrones or The Crown and use an hour or two of your own time to invest in yourself. Indeed some senior Execs I have worked with see development as part of their own reward strategy for a job well done. Is that an approach you could adopt?

At the nub of much of the obstacle to executive development is understanding its significance to the organisation. If the most senior leaders are well developed human beings, who can lead effectively even when under the often extreme pressure that goes with the role, then the organisation is much more likely to thrive. Yes, those in more junior roles also need development opportunities too but if you can begin to lead effectively from the top, your impact on the success of the business is multiplied simply by dint of the reach that you have. Engage in your development today because “you’re worth it”.

Glenn Wallis provides executive development for senior leaders. He also speaks and writes on leadership. If you want to discuss your own development needs, contact Glenn here.

First among equals: The main reason you have a leaky leadership pipeline

 – A 5 minute read –

There are many reasons why your organisation may not have a high quality leadership pipeline upon which to call when a current leader moves on, or a new position is created that requires someone to head it up. However, one reason above all others is the most significant contributing factor to the lack of leadership talent patiently waiting in the wings. It is the reason why reports such as Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends Report regularly suggest leadership development is so high on the list of concerns for Executives.

Get a handle on these

If you are experiencing a dearth of people who are ready or willing to step up into the role of your most senior leaders, it could well be because:

  • Your current cadre of senior leaders provide a really poor role model for aspirants
  • More junior leaders don’t get an insight into senior leadership roles and so make assumptions about what it must be like to be in such a role
  • Talent programmes alienate both those inside them and those excluded from them
  • Regulatory pressures, such as the Senior Manager Regime, are debilitating and putting a lot of talented people off making the leap into the most senior leadership positions
  • The culture in your organisation fails to support and promote female leaders in the right kind of numbers into the most senior roles.

Whilst these reasons are all important and you will do well to explore them, they are not the largest single reason for your currently empty (or leaky) leadership pipeline. The largest single reason for the very real challenges that exist around leadership succession is that the current in-house leadership population do not typically do an effective job of developing the next round of leaders.

Skills shortage

Senior people tell me they are under such pressure to deliver that they don’t have the time to dedicate to mentoring and coaching their successors. I get it but it’s not the whole story. Time pressures exist, certainly. So do ego, insecurity and self-centredness. Yet even these negative traits, in my experience, are nowhere near as prevalent as some would have you believe.

No, it’s much simpler than that: Developing very senior leaders requires a skillset that many current leaders just don’t possess, even where they are willing to try and where they could prioritise sufficient time to do so. Whilst there are doubtless technical skills required to lead at the highest level, so much of the role requires a highly developed personal psyche and social-cognitive profile. All of which allows for nuanced, responses and complex personal and interpersonal responses to the challenges faced when in the ultimate leadership positions.

A range of solutions

For the technical areas a ‘wannabe leader’ can turn to an external mentor or their current boss, either of whom may have excelled in the role and can share really important insights. Yet, those same people rarely possess the abilities to develop a human being, in order that that person is able to step into a senior leadership role with confidence, able to hold their own in the highly charged environment, from Day 1.

Acknowledging such difficulties in developing pretty deep elements of a person’s make-up, prompts many large organisations to look to experienced leadership development providers, who can provide the highest quality one-to-one support for would-be leaders. It is only through such an approach that many potential seniors leaders will be able to succeed in the long term, as the Executives and CEOs of tomorrow.

Dr Glenn P Wallis provides leadership consultancy and executive coaching to senior leaders in organisations. He also provides keynote presentations and writes extensively from his experience of nearly 20 years in the field. If you would like to find out more, please contact us here.