In Ralph Stacey’s book Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management, the author argues that the leadership and management models commonly used in organisations have not been proven to work. Leadership training and coaching have mainly been focusing on horizontal development. To learn skills on how to coach their team, give feedback and listen actively, leaders and managers need vertical development and training to help them judge in the ambiguity and uncertainty of today’s organisations. Vertical development involves expanding understandings and perspectives by recognising the outcome good feedback has in the group and the consequences of one’s behaviour.

Dealing with stress effectively

Dealing with the stress and worry in an upside down environment is something many leaders are faced with. Fear and anxiety are both results of something called the Amygdala response. The Amygdala is the part of the brain associated with fear, and its response creates fear and anxiety, something most of us want to flee or escape from. Experiential avoidance is a broad term referring to an attempt or desire to suppress unwanted internal experiences such as emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This unwillingness to stay in contact with internal experiences is thought to underlie many unhealthy behaviors like anxiety, depression, and alcohol abuse.

In a chaotic environment, leaders focus on goals and can sometimes lack the ability to slow down their own processes due to habitual avoidance. Our inner experience is what informs our conscious choices and experiential avoidance has the effect of limiting our options. If we are used to suppressing negative emotions, this avoidance leads to difficulties with decision-making. It’s not about reacting to our emotions, it’s about learning about them.

Being mindful helps us engage with the stress and worry instead of being reactive to it, and we achieve awareness of our avoidant behavior through mindfulness. It enables new perspectives to emerge, and helps us to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, or confusion.

Future leadership behaviors

In a white paper from the Center of Creative Leadership, the behaviors needed in future leaders are adaptability, self-awareness, boundary-spanning, collaboration, network thinking, creativity, thinking strategically, managing change effectively, and being systems thinkers who are comfortable with ambiguity.

The four-factor model

In a long-term Australian research project called “Developing leadership for high stress workplaces: Improving well-being, engagement, productivity, and staff retention”, Dr. Michael Cavanagh and his colleagues have developed a four-factor model of the skills needed to work effectively as managers and leaders. According to their data, these are:

1. Perspective capacity: the ability to take multiple perspectives on what is happening

Perspective capacity is a critical meta-skill for leadership. It is the ability to understand, critically consider, integrate multiple competing perspectives to guide action, and take a perspective that makes sense of what is going on in oneself, others, and the system.

2. Mindfulness: the ability to stay calm in the face of stress and worry

Mindfulness emphasises the importance of self-awareness to purposeful action, the ability to observe the present moment factually. It helps us see our own process and respond intentionally rather than reactively. Mindfulness shows us moments of choice and support self-regulation.

3. Purpose: that they are going somewhere

Purpose is the directional, inspirational aspects of leadership. Good leaders are typically solution-focused; they will learn from the past but will be oriented towards the future and building solutions. We move towards goals we consider worthwhile, and our behavior is directed toward valuable goals, with actions and commitment.

4. Positivity: they create positive emotional spaces and can bring out the best in others

Positivity is the ability to create expansive, emotional spaces characterised by positive interpersonal behaviors such as listening, being heard, getting and giving feedback, foster engagement, effort, and growth. This includes comprising complexity and understanding the evolving nature of complex systems. Cavanagh and his teams’ research data indicate that all these competencies and behaviors are trainable.

Sustained behavior change: training followed by coaching

To develop leadership training for lasting behavior change, align strategy with behaviors, include vertical and horizontal development, create training programmes followed by a series of follow-up sessions with a coach. It’s not the skill that differentiates a good leader from an average one, but the perspective that guides the application of the skill. Practices that help people get into the reflective practice in a regular, structured way can make a huge difference.

Written by Lotta Wallin, consultant in L&D, In focus and well-being Ltd.

Lotta Wallin, a consultant in L&D who works in an International environment with sustaining behavior change by utilizing evidence based methods, tools and assessments. Lotta has broad experience from cognitive behavioral therapy and executive coaching, she is a specialist in adult learning and human behavior, for academic institutions as well as corporate organizations. She designs and delivers training in leadership and positive psychology, to name a few.

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