We love acronyms! Our workplaces are thriving with them, such that we can hold extended conversations composed entirely of seemingly impenetrable codes. They are handy though and this one REAL is short and serviceable to describe best practice leadership attributes. It always good to combine evidence with pontification. This summary of the great and the good tendencies amongst leaders is based on recent survey research we did in the USA We asked what respondents thought leaders needed to do to be more successful. We are in the process of rolling this survey out globally. The REAL acronym is composed of these key elements – Reliable, Empathetic, Aspirational and Learner.
"Reliable" is an obvious choice and though much upheld in principle, tends to break down in practice. "Managing upwards" is a buzzword for describing how to deal with one’s boss. It used to be called "sucking up to the boss" to get ahead. In the latter case, it means taking all the glory for yourself, Teflon-like blaming others for mistakes and stepping on the bodies of your staff, to elevate your own brilliant career.
Reliable however is an attribute that leads to trust only when the staff observe that what is said is actually done, that promises are kept and that their own personal development is being given a high priority. "What’s in it for me" is a common human frailty. Bosses who keep this in mind when making sure the organisation and individual goals of their staff are aligned, get more loyalty and more accomplished. Misunderstandings do arise, usually traced back to poor communication. More work need here!
"Empathetic" is closely linked to listening skills. Taking the viewpoint of the other person is difficult if we don’t know what that viewpoint is. The Japanese expression kuki wo yomu or summing up the real situation, is a great phrase to explain empathy. What is being said is important, but more often what isn’t being said is where all the insight is buried.
Busy bosses though don’t have much time to get below the surface calm of the workplace. Some don’t care – just get me the numbers – or else! Using our position power produces up to a point, but we miss out on a lot of creative potential as the opportunity cost. If we want to know what is really going on and what people are really thinking, we have to spend time and work at it. Expressing we actually do care is also another orphan amongst communication skills. Successful bosses have good awareness and confidence to communicate they really do care about their people.
"Aspirational" reflects ideas about grasping the bigger picture. Hovering above the melee of the everyday to see the vision being realised far on the horizon. It means communicating beyond this quarter’s goals and placing each individual’s role in terms of their contribution to the bigger goal. The framed glass protects the vision statement, ceremoniously hung on the wall. While it may not fade in the sunlight, it fades in the collective memory. No one can recite it, let along live it, so it is as meaningful as the flower arrangement on the reception desk. Pleasant enough idea but ephemeral. The leader has to inject the ideas and concepts involved into terms that resonate with each person individually. This takes time, which is why so few organisations get any return on their investment in their vision statement.
"Learning" gets nods of approval but many executives have had one year of experience thirty times rather than thirty years of experience. Their views are still locked away in a mental vault, for which they have lost the key. Too busy to learn. Busy, busy working in their business, rather than on their business. They are up to date on Facebook but way behind where the industry is headed and where their company needs to go. Well informed yet ignorant, because they lack perspective and acuity. If we aren’t prepared to permanently kill our darlings, our favoured ideas and concepts, we must be prepared to risk falling behind, trampled by our competitors
How do we learn? We read what the leaders in our industry have to say, we attend conferences which assemble the best minds on the subject. We get training and re-train on things we have learnt in the past, but have forgotten. We head off to Executive programmes at leading institutions to be exposed to fresh ideas and information. We look for relevant surveys of our industry or sector, to provide some insight into future directions. We read broadly as well, looking for tangential inspiration to spark ideas in our minds about our own situations. We are not afraid to test things in our companies, to see if there is better way. That means tolerating certain degree of failure in the messy process of innovation.
REAL, another acronym heaven dweller, is easy to remember and that at least is a start to actually realising its power. We know all of these things – we just forget or get too busy to do them. We should change that.