Talking about leadership these days…

Article by: Philippe De Bock, Partner at KennedyFitch

Talking about leadership these days…

Recently, I was asked if the key to developing leadership agility was linked to our ability to “unlearn” – to let go of outdated practices and adopt new ones, as the hallmark of effective leadership. A thought provoking question, one which triggered a number of reflections. I’d like to share those reflections with you.

As I share them, keep in mind that their order does not imply importance (number one is absolutely not more important than number five) nor are they exhaustive. I am probably forgetting plenty of other elements of leadership, but that is exactly the beauty and difficulty of leadership;  it is so complex, narrowing it down to a few concepts or capabilities never does it fully justice.

Here are my reflections, nevertheless:


Let’s stay away from the notion of “good” or “bad” leadership. As I don’t know what we are measuring. Against what or whom are we comparing? Are we comparing against Jack Welsh who led in a different area or against Nelson Mandela who led in South Africa? Comparing leadership is extremely difficult as leadership is contextually driven and each context is different.

The line-up

Leadership competency models give us a fake feeling of security. During my corporate career, I was a fervent believer of leadership competency models with a leveled approach. It gave me a great feeling of comfort, as I could compare human beings to their leadership attributes. I loved Lominger and others. I discovered over time, however, that this is a fake sense of comfort. Leadership is so much driven by context that is impossible to come up with one single model to capture so many different settings and situations. Let me give you one example we have all lived (and have forgotten about) – COVID-19. Remember the day they told us that there was some kind of virus spreading that had the ability to shut down the world? And do you remember a single leadership book that told you what to do as a leader in such a situation? And yet, we were able to lead our organizations and society through this horrible crisis and come out stronger. Leadership is situational and we need to learn how we can adapt leadership to the context and not the other way around.

“Leadership competency models give us a fake feeling of security.”

Leadership talent

What is talent? We keep on holding on to our 9 box models, even though we all know that they have plenty of biases. Why? Because it is so difficult to measure potential. Let’s take a nine-box output: Performance vs. Potential. Simple approach and easy to use, right? Wrong. Ask 10 different leaders to give their definition of potential and you’re likely to end up with 10 different definitions. In my view, it is about Learning Agility. Leaders who have IQ, EQ, AQ, and Self-Awareness are often the ones to keep an eye on. I would even suggest that the ones with less traditional career paths (like having worked for the big 4 in audit, etc……) are the ones to keep a close look at.

There’s no leadership without followership

We put a lot of focus on leadership but maybe the real heroes are the ones who chose to follow you. Have you ever seen the First Follower Youtube video? It’s about how being the first one to follow someone (in this case a lone dancer at a festival) takes courage and is key to creating a bigger following. The same goes for leadership, if you’re not able to create followership, are you then a leader or an individual dancing on your own in a field?

Furthermore, I believe the classic model of leadership has also evolved to something where the leader alternates his role between leading and being led. Our current business setting has become so complex that leaders can’t lead all the time. Let me give you an example: Imagine you’re a CEO leading a classic manufacturing-driven organization, with a vertical sales approach, and all of a sudden they tell you that AI has entered your business area and now everything is about AI. Do you have a clue how to lead in such a situation? Assuming you don’t, do you have the courage to admit to this and bring in those who could help you?

Peter’s Principle

“Understand what success would look at the next level in the current setting/context.”

What got you here won’t get you there. We’ve all seen leaders who are successful at one level and then completely fail at the next level, also known as Peter’s Principle or being promoted to “your level of incompetence”. This can be avoided if we are willing and able to reflect for a moment and try to understand what success would look at the next level in the current setting/context. Instead of trying to hold on to our little tricks or know-how from the past. The worst example I ever saw was a new entering CEO who asked his direct reports to name the people they would take along with them into battle and who would they leave out. The person came from an army background and maybe in combat this is a piece of interesting information, but in our current business setting I would say the more diverse your team is the more interesting it becomes. Right?

Psychological Safety

The above example of the new entering CEO also reminds me how psychological unsafe this situation was. And being in psychological unsafe environment won’t bring your team to high performance team you want to be. Psychological safety is not about being nice all the time or signing kumbaya all day long. For me it is about being able to tell, what needs to be said in an open and transparent way; without fear of repercussions or negative impacts on yourself. I hope the work of Amy Edmonson becomes required reading in most business schools one day.

Authenticity –the closest one to my heart.

I love to work with leaders who know what they are good or less good at and who are able to show their vulnerability and their emotions. Who truly show up in their full self. But to show up in your full self you need to know who you are as a leader and as a person. Therefore it is of utmost importance that leaders invest in their self-knowledge and self-awareness. It seems like a no-brainer, but still there are quite a few leaders out there who believe they are God’s greatest gift. That is, until you speak with a few direct reports. So if you don’t cherish the principle that feedback is a gift then you’d better start to think about why you don’t.

Purpose-driven leadership

Many NextGen’s or GenZ are looking for “Purpose-drive-leadership” – but what is this purpose about? Not so long ago I read a book (‘Deliberate Calm’, McKinsey Company) and they defined purpose as follows “We define purpose as the intersection of where our passion meets the needs of the world”. Too simple for you? For me, it works – my passion is to help people to discover their talents and bring them to life.

The Hamster effect

We all know the feeling of running all day, in back to back meetings and trying to keep up with the endless stream of emails. We forget that adults learn by alternating action and reflection and that therefore taking a break is not only needed from a wellbeing perspective but also from a learning perspective.

Leadership will remain challenging, inspiring, and foremost evolving. But let me close with a positive note, as positivity is contagious:  if you stay interested in yourself and others, keep learning and unlearning and, most importantly, do not forget to enjoy the moment, you will be a leader. To yourself and others. So keep dancing, for soon you won’t dance alone!

Special thanks to Daan who pushed me to do something that was a stretch and a challenge to me, maybe I didn’t get to express all that I wanted to but I truly enjoyed it.

Happy to hear your thoughts & reflections.

Do you want to contact Philippe, feel free to send an email or reach out via LinkedIn:

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