Leadership beyond the C-suite

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In this episode of the McKinsey Podcast, Simon London speaks with McKinsey senior partner Claudio Feser and associate partner Nicolai Nielsen about the research in their new book, Leadership at Scale: Better Leadership, Better Results.

Hello, and welcome to this episode of the McKinsey Podcast, with me, Simon London. I think everybody wants to learn about leadership and with good reason. We all know from experience that the difference between a happy, high-performing team and a miserable, somewhat dysfunctional team often comes down to the quality of its leadership. And yet, what exactly is good leadership? How do you develop yourself as a leader? And, importantly, from a management perspective, how can organizations develop real depth of leadership? Not just among a few executives at the top but up and down the organizational chart and across business units and functions.
To answer these questions, I sat down in Zurich with McKinsey senior partner Claudio Feser and associate partner Nicolai Nielsen. Claudio and Nicolai are coauthors, along with Michael Rennie, of the new book Leadership at Scale.
Claudio and Nicolai, thank you for being here, and welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having us.
Happy to be here.
Let’s start with the big question, probably capital “B,” capital “Q.” Claudio, what is leadership? What are our core beliefs at McKinsey about what leadership is and what it isn’t?
There are hundreds of definitions of leadership. If you ask ten people for a definition of leadership, you’re likely to get more than ten answers. To actually address it, we need to start from a definition. We need to define what we mean by “leadership.” The way we have defined “leadership” is as a set of behaviors that leaders exercise to influence organizational members to achieve a higher alignment on the direction that the organization is taking, to achieve a better execution of the strategy, and for the organization to continuously renew itself.
Alignment, execution, and renewal—that goes back to our work on organizational health. We learned that when organizational members are aligned on a strategy, when they execute consistently and effectively, when they continuously scan the environment for opportunities, and when they continuously learn and renew themselves, that organization tends to overperform, or outperform, over long periods of time. We decided to focus on a set of behaviors by which leaders align, improve execution, and improve the ability to renew an organization.
So broadly speaking, it’s about observable behaviors that lead to these measurable outcomes around alignment, around execution, and around renewal?
Correct. It’s about observable behaviors, because we lead through behaviors. Communicating effectively is a behavior. Being able to engage people by listening is a behavior. Giving a direction is a behavior. Leaders influence their environment—and organizational members—through a set of behaviors. And that’s our starting point.
It’s not some ineffable, indefinable something?
If you develop a perspective about leadership as innate type of capabilities, there will always be a finite number of leaders. But the reality is, if you ask any leader to describe where they learned leading, they will always talk about their own personal experience, how they have grown, and how they have learned a set of behaviors by which they influence others.
Once, I had a conversation with a CEO, and I asked him why he was leading in a certain way. He wasn’t particularly strong in engaging, but he was very strong in directing. That was his way of achieving impact. After our conversation, he shared with me that he had a very painful experience as a young executive, where he had started to bond very closely with his employees. But then, when a cost-cutting program came his way, he had to fire lots of friends. That created with him a leadership style which was effective, but not very engaging. So he became a very directive leader.
That’s just to explain that it’s our experiences, it’s behaviors that we’ve exercised in the past that were successful, that shape our leadership style. Yes, leadership is a set of behaviors in this sense.
A couple of thoughts I have: the reason we focus so much on observable behaviors is because leadership has to be looked at objectively. Observable behaviors make it very, very clear what we see happen on a day-to-day basis on the job. And that helps us analyze whether this is effective leadership or not. One more thought is that leadership is highly contextual, so it is about behaviors. But those behaviors are based on the context. So effective leadership in one context can be very, very different from effective leadership in another
But the key thing is, there are real projects going on through the leadership-development program. This is not just simulations. It’s not just sitting in a classroom.
Once, I had a conversation with a CEO, and I asked him why he was leading in a certain way. He wasn’t particularly strong in engaging, but he was very strong in directing. That was his way of achieving impact.
After our conversation, he shared with me that he had a very painful experience as a young executive, where he had started to bond very closely with his employees. But then, when a cost-cutting program came his way, he had to fire lots of friends. That created with him a leadership style which was effective, but not very engaging. So he became a very directive leader.
That’s just to explain that it’s our experiences, it’s behaviors that we’ve exercised in the past that were successful, that shape our leadership style. Yes, leadership is a set of behaviors in this sense.
A couple of thoughts I have: the reason we focus so much on observable behaviors is because leadership has to be looked at objectively. Observable behaviors make it very, very clear what we see happen on a day-to-day basis on the job. And that helps us analyze whether this is effective leadership or not. One more thought is that leadership is highly contextual, so it is about behaviors. But those behaviors are based on the context. So effective leadership in one context can be very, very different from effective leadership in another.
So that raises another interesting question, which is, can leadership be taught?
I do believe that the concept of teaching leadership might be a bit at the core of some of the problems that we have, because leadership is a set of behaviors, and because behaviors are learned in practice—not so much in a classroom, they’re learned in practice. Maybe the concept of teaching leadership is at odds with how adults learn.
We learn by doing. We learn by trying. We learn by failing. As we do so, we develop skills. We learn to communicate. We learn to empathize. We learn to direct. We learn to execute. We learn to follow up. These are all behaviors that we learn by trying, by improving, by succeeding. And because we do that ourselves most of the time, I think that this is a bit at odds with the concept of teaching. It’s more a question about enabling learning.
For us, a leadership-development program builds a lot around coaching, mentoring, and having people trying to solve difficult problems—and being supported while they do so—because when they solve them, they learn. I’m not sure anyone picked up any leadership skill by sitting in a class and listening to a professor describing a skill, what that really is.
There’s that famous Henry Mintzberg quote that leadership is a bit like swimming, that you can’t learn it from books. Ultimately, you have to get in the water. So it sounds almost like we’re describing leadership like a skill, something that could be learned in that way. Is that the right way to think about it?
Partly. I think we look at it a bit broader than that. We look at the leadership behaviors in a context. They need to be enabled by both a certain set of skills and an underlying mind-set. Let me build on that. From a skills point of view, we look at what it takes to display the leadership behaviors in the context effectively. And if a leader is able to consistently perform those behaviors over and over again, you could say that they have an underlying skill.
So leadership behaviors become skills if they’re carried out consistently. Very often in discussions with leadership gurus or studies, you will hear the word “mind-set” and how mind-set is important for leadership. Now, the way we look at this is as follows: for us, mind-set is an enabler or a blockage for leadership skills.
I will never be a great communicator if I’m convinced I’m not good at communicating. Or I will never engage in courageous conversations if I’m always afraid of looking for a discussion or a confrontation. Mind-sets can very much be blockages but also can enable behavioral change, can actually allow leaders to grow and to expand their reertoire of leadership skills or competencies.
Much of our work, when we work on developing new capabilities, new skills, new competencies, so new sets of observable behaviors, is at the mind-set level. We try to understand, why is that leader not behaving the way one would expect in the situation? What might be the mind-set that blocks him or her? And we then work at that dimension.

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Here is a direct link to the complete transcript.

Claudio Feser is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Zurich office, and Nicolai Nielsen is an associate partner in the New York office. Simon London, a member of McKinsey Publishing, is based in the Silicon Valley office.

 

 

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