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From the December, 1995 issue of
Leading a Diverse Staff - Qualities of a Catalytic Leader
By Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe
In today's pluralistic organization where there is strong concern for diversity, a high degree of bottom up (rather than top down) control, and where employees desire opportunities for growth and creativity, there is a need for a new kind of leadership. What qualities do leaders need in order to be able to deal effectively with a wide variety of employees and to give staff members the autonomy to take on responsibility and control? The following seven qualities at the core of catalytic leadership emerge.
1. Tolerance for ambiguity
Because leaders of dynamic, ever-changing organizations operate in uncharted territory, the ability to live with the unknown is essential. Allowing employees to innovate and take charge requires a leap of faith.
Diversity tests this ability further. Leading groups of staff made up of individuals from different backgrounds, with wide ranges in priorities, values, needs, and preferences, presents more questions than answers. Catalytic leaders are able to create new ways to respond to these exciting yet challenging situations, because they have the inner strength to tolerate the anxiety of not having an immediate answer. They can live in limbo and confusion without pushing for premature solutions.
2. Valuing differences
When the leader sees differences as an asset to the team, diverse staff are well led. However, different is often viewed as substandard, or as one seminar participant called it, the "B" team. The subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, assumption that differences equate to deficiencies forms a powerful stumbling block to anyone wanting to lead today's multi-faceted staffs. Catalytic leaders are those who build on differences and see them as providing options, not presenting obstacles.
3. Capitalizing on change
Change is both stimulant and stressor, exciting and fear producing. Yet it is unlikely that the pace of change will decrease in the years ahead. Leaders that remain proactive will stay ahead of the game by looking forward, anticipating conditions and events, and preparing for the consequences. Not only do they prepare, they take the initiative to make these changes work for them and their organizations. Change is seen as presenting opportunities rather than problems, with each turn of the road offering a new chance.
4. Belief in the wisdom of the team
Leaders who are able to stimulate their groups to produce at an accelerated level have a fundamental belief in the ability of the team to do it. There is ample evidence that the Pygmalion Effect is a powerful one. What we believe about others' capabilities has a great effect on the actual behavior and performance of those others. This belief keeps the leader from rescuing the group when it reaches a rough spot, or taking control to set things right. Catalytic leaders believe that the team ultimately can find its own answers and has the ability to push itself beyond its present limits.
5. Maintaining a balance between product and process
Catalytic leaders know that both ends and means count. The two are inextricably tied, and the success of the team depends on an appropriate balance between them. Attention to product gives the team focus and a sense of accomplishment central to its existence. Yet, equally important, attention to process keeps the group from being hindered by human obstacles such as conflict and misunderstanding.
6. Building responsibility and accountability
Catalytic leaders also know that if staff are to have the motivation and esteem to perform at high levels, they need to feel a sense of responsibility over and accountability for their work. This means they are encouraged to take risks and deal with their outcomes, and they are expected to make their own decisions. The real test of both responsibility and accountability comes when things don't work out as planned. It is at these times that catalytic leaders demonstrate their ability to allow team members to grow and learn from the situation. By not riding in on a white horse to save the day, the leader helps team members develop this fundamental ownership of their own actions.
7. Inviting, using, and giving feedback effectively
For a catalytic leader to keep a finger on the pulse of diverse staff, she must know their needs, understand their decisions, and have open and clear two-way communication. This requires a complete feedback loop, letting staff know what's expected and when they are on and off target, as well as listening to the same in return. For the leader to be a real catalyst, a stimulator of growth and learning, requires a further step. It's what Chris Argyris calls double loop communication. It involves going beneath the initial feedback to the reasons and causes as well as prompting deeper thinking and greater responsibility. If, for example, staff members report a problem, the leader does not respond only with a let's-fix-it discussion but with some probing questions. When did this problem become apparent to you? What is causing it? What prevented you from taking care of it or reporting it earlier? How can we remove these barriers? What other obstacles are there right now that we aren't talking about or working on removing? These discussions call for a non-defensive posture on all parts, which requires a strong foundation of trust and openness between leaders and followers. Two-way feedback can both build and benefit from such mutual credibility and confidence.
Pluralistic organizations and the diverse staff within them call for dynamic, flexible, and visionary leaders. Developing these seven qualities can help in providing that leadership.
Gardenswartz and Rowe are diversity consultants/trainers and authors of several books including MANAGING DIVERSITY: A COMPLETE DESK REFERENCE AND PLANNING GUIDE and DIVERSE TEAMS AT WORK. They are also the authors of diversity training materials such as THE DIVERSITY TOOL KIT and the new video series DIVERSE TEAMS AT WORK: CAPITALIZING ON THE POWER OF DIVERSITY. They can be reached at 12658 W. Washington Blvd., Ste. 105, Los Angeles, CA 90066; (310) 823-2466.
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