Step-Up: Lead in Six Moments that Matter

Henry Evans and Colm Foster. Jossey Bass. €22.99

Mon, Jun 2, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
Step up


Henry Evans, Colm Foster

Jossey Bass

Guideline Price:

There is no shortage of titles on leadership and coming up with an original take on the topic is a challenge at the best of times. Evans and Foster made a good attempt here in a book that is refreshingly direct in its advice.

Dublin-based Foster, a former accountant with EY and PwC, is a performance coach who has worked with Kerry Group, Irish Life, and GlaxoSmithKline and is on the faculty of the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and the IMI. Evans, who is American, has an interest in emotionally intelligent leadership amongst other things and is author of Winning with Accountability: The Secret Language of High-Performing Organizations. Their book focuses on the six key moments where leadership really matters based on the authors direct experience from clients in their consultant business.

The first of these, using anger intelligently in the workplace, involves a novel approach to how to deal with this emotion. Too often, we have been told that negative emotions are bad, interfere with our rational thinking and should be suppressed. Not so, say Evans and Foster.

Anger is an afflictive emotion that is highly leveragable and can be used to generate the energy required to move to productive action. The problem isn’t the anger it is the stupidity that comes with it. Separate these two and you have a powerful emotion. The authors suggest techniques to control the negative aspects of anger, so that you produce a response rather than a reaction.

In a similar vein, terminal politeness is recognised as another problem in organisations, one that prevents serious issues from being confronted. The authors link lack of conflict to lack of innovation. You need friction to ignite sparks and without healthy and productive conflict you can’t do that is the message here. Many of today’s organisational leaders avoid conflict because they have been trained to build cohesion in teams. The premise is advanced that there is a direct link between a rise in conflict and a rise in performance – up to a point. Too much and performance declines equally. Avoidance of conflict is the norm, however.

Strong leadership also involves taking risks and making decisions, even in the absence of all of the information that is required necessary. It is rare to have the time and the resources to do things perfectly. An 80 per cent completed strategy brilliantly executed beats a 100 per cent finished strategy badly executed.

Witness the approach of Ideo, a design and innovation consultancy that has developed an approach to decision making that is described as rough, rapid and right. Their philosophy is based on the idea of getting a basic prototype into customer hands as soon as possible and then changing it quickly in response to customer feedback.

This approach has kept them at the forefront of innovative design for many years. Too many organisations, by contrast, get stuck in analysis paralysis.

Indecisiveness is a huge issue for leaders and many underestimate their own reputation for decisiveness. The authors suggest that leaders should seek honest appraisal from a trusted colleague to calibrate their performance in this area.

Inappropriate politeness and the sugar-coating of bad news are frequent consequences of indecisiveness leadership.

Another issue is that leaders frequently doubt their own ability. Evans and Foster report that from teaching on numerous MBA and in-house executive leadership programme in Europe, the US and Asia, one common characteristic of leadership emerges. No matter what the industry or the position in the hierarchy of the participants managers, only a small fraction claim to be good leaders.

Confidence is important. Others can sense how you are feeling and can catch your anxiety and it is a very short mental leap from seeing someone as lacking in confidence to assuming he or she lacks competence. Research quoted here uncovers a strong negative correlation between a person’s level of anxiety and the extent to which a boss rates him or her as a leader. Leaders, therefore, need to learn to manage their levels of anxiety. Crucially they need to understand that there is no link between anxiety and accuracy. Just because you are nervous does not make your position invalid but the converse also holds true.

This is an interesting book on leadership with some counterintuitive opinions and a sprinkling of Irish references that will interest local readers.