Leader Problem? Or Leadership Problem?

Excerpt from “Direction, Alignment, Commitment: Achieving Better Results Through Leadership,” a guidebook from the Center for Creative Leadership, by Cynthia McCauley and Lynn Fick-Cooper.

Do you have a leadership problem? Is your group getting results? Is it hitting targets, achieving quality standards, meeting deadlines, making timely decisions, or exceeding stakeholders’ expectations?

If you answered, “No,” to any of these questions, whether you are the leader or a member of the group, you should explore the roots of the problems your group might be experiencing. Do you have the right talent or resources in the group to get the job done? Is the group basing its work on faulty assumptions (e.g., what clients or customers value most, the promise of a new technology, the willingness of different agencies or divisions to cooperate)? Has something in your organization’s environment changed, such as additional competition or new forms of regulation, making the group’s original aims unrealistic or irrelevant? Or do you have a leadership problem?

The most common definition of a “leadership problem” is a “leader problem”—a problem stemming from the person or people in charge, such as managers, chairpersons, or team leaders. Are they not doing their jobs? How can they improve their effectiveness? Do they need to be replaced? It is reasonable to examine what the individuals with formal authority in the group are or are not doing that is contributing to the group not achieving results. However, the quick leap from “leadership problem” to “leader problem” can create tunnel vision.

Leadership involves far more than the person who holds the leader title. It is a social process that enables individuals to work together as a cohesive group to produce collective results—results they could never achieve working as individuals. Central to the process are the interactions and exchanges between the formal leader and group members, and among group members themselves. The process is influenced by the beliefs and values of the individuals involved, the quality of relationships in the group, formal structures and procedures, and the group’s informal routines. To diagnose the source of problems in this process, one needs to take a whole system rather than an individual leader perspective. Formal leaders are an important part of the system, yet they are only one component in the multifaceted and dynamic process of leadership. How do you assess the effectiveness of a group’s leadership process? The most useful place to start is with the immediate outcomes the leadership process needs to produce. When the leadership process in a group is effective, it generates three crucial outcomes: direction, alignment, and commitment (DAC).

  • Direction is widespread agreement in the group on overall goals. In groups with strong direction, members have a shared understanding of what group success looks like and agree on what they are aiming to accomplish. In groups with weak direction, members are uncertain about what they should accomplish together, or they feel pulled in different directions by competing goals.
  • Alignment is coordinated work within the group. In groups with strong alignment, members with different tasks or roles or with different sets of expertise coordinate their work. In groups with weak alignment, members work more in isolation, unclear about how their tasks fit into the larger work of the group and are in danger of working at cross-purposes, duplicating effort, or having important work fall through the cracks.
  • Commitment is mutual responsibility for the group. In groups with strong commitment, members feel responsible for the success and well-being of the group, and know other group members feel the same. They trust one another and will stick with the group through difficult times. In groups with weak commitment, members put their own interests ahead of the group’s interests and contribute to the group only when it is easy to do so or when they have something to gain.

Assessing the levels of DAC in your group and then examining potential contributing factors can help you diagnose what is not working in your current leadership process. It can help you see where you need to focus improvement efforts, and you can begin to explore ways of changing the group’s leadership process so it produces stronger DAC. This book describes a three-step process for diagnosing DAC issues in groups:

  1. Assess current levels of direction, alignment, and commitment in the group.
  2. Look for factors contributing to low levels of direction, alignment, or commitment.
  3. Identify changes that could improve direction, alignment, or commitment.

Excerpt from “Direction, Alignment, Commitment: Achieving Better Results Through Leadership,” a guidebook from the Center for Creative Leadership, by Cynthia McCauley and Lynn Fick-Cooper. To read more and access questionnaires and team survey tools to evaluate DAC, purchase the book at: http://solutions.ccl.org/DAC-Achieving-Better-Results-Through-Leadership. The next book in the guidebook series, which offers insight and tips to identify and address factors influencing leadership trust, is available at: http://solutions.ccl.org/Leadership-Trust#_ga=1.130932235.583646370.1449670668.

Cindy McCauley is a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership. She designs and manages R&D projects, coaches action learning teams, writes for multiple audiences, and is a frequent speaker at professional conferences. As a result of her research and applied work, she is an advocate for using on-the-job experience as a central leader development strategy, for seeing leadership as a product of the collective, and for integrating constructive-developmental theories of human growth into leader development practice. McCauley received her Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia. She is a fellow in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and serves on the editorial boards of Group and Organization Management and Organizational Dynamics.

Lynn Fick-Cooper is Co-Deputy Director and Lead Faculty for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Ladder to Leadership National Program Office at the Center for Creative Leadership. She oversees the implementation of the program in eight communities across the U.S. Fick-Cooper has more than 19 years of experience in leadership positions in nonprofit organizations and 10 years of group facilitation experience in leadership development programs. She received her MBA from the Bryan School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.