Leading At The Edge

Dec 22, 2014 1 Min Read

Photo credit (above): Boynton | Flickr

How to unlock extraordinary performance

Why do some people and teams overcome impossible barriers, go beyond unbearable pain and frustration and persevere in order to achieve outcomes seemingly beyond reach when others would give up?

Through their desire for relentless improvement, leaders at the edge can unlock the highest levels of performance from their teams and organisations, making work a more exciting place to be for themselves and those around them. Leading at the edge enables people to play to win rather than simply playing not to lose.

Leading at the edge means being eager to challenge yourself, to stay intensely curious about the world and the people in it, and to inspire others to achieve more than they thought possible.

Being appointed a leader does not make you a leader. But the good news is that high performance leadership and leading at the edge are talents everyone can learn.

Drawing on studies of high performance leadership from the world of sports, theatre, music, hostage negotiation, business and personal achievement, managers can translate this learning to the real world of leading.

Cutting edge leaders know how to take appropriate risk, inspire trust and create opportunities to foster success for themselves and their teams. They are able to master their own emotions to avoid being taken hostage by themselves or by anyone else.

Leading at the edge requires you to step out of your comfort zone and take those calculated risks that lead to outstanding results.

High performance leadership is all about learning how to play to win‚ i.e. aligning your organisation to find the most compelling strategic opportunities, rather than simply playing not to lose, i.e. avoiding failure.

Leadership excellence occurs on personal, interpersonal, professional and organisational levels throughout a person’s career.

Surprisingly, the vast majority of managers are in fact playing not to lose, which means they are not really leading at all. Regardless of professional and organisational roles, all leaders must understand how leadership, strategy and operational effectiveness are closely intertwined to achieve the highest levels of success.


What does it take to lead at the edge?

Leading at the edge requires an artful mix of focus, motivation, inspiration and courage to take risks that constantly push the boundaries and to strive for what seems impossible.

In order to reap the benefits of leading at the edge, you need to try to make eight dimensions an integral part of your personal style and organisational culture:


1. Develop your leadership talent

Companies that have a leadership development culture excel because they become talent magnets by consistently providing people with opportunities to learn, grow and build leadership competencies.

These companies become high performing organisations by attracting and keeping their most talented people fully engaged, and by creating a self-reinforcing cycle whereby leadership development is at the heart of successfully running the business.

Leadership is a learned talent that can be developed at any age, and it starts with you and your own performance. Playing to win is at the heart of high performance leadership.

This is a special mindset that requires you, as a leader, to look for challenging opportunities, take risks, act assertively and bring others with you.

Ultimately, the best strategy is only as good as its execution, and execution is about people, their ability to perform, their level of engagement and their ability to adhere to a greater vision. As with all talents, leadership must be developed through years of focused learning, training and practice.

Learning to lead requires an eagerness to improve through the use of a teacher, a coach or someone who can guide the leader to develop all the subtle skills involved in effectively influencing others. Excellent leadership is the result of years of deliberate practice and relentless persistence.

Leadership requires resilience, the ability to learn from both adversity and failure, to constantly seek feedback and to refine one’s own skills.


2. Lead from the mind’s eye

The mind’s eye determines where we place our focus and, as such, our energy. It guides the choices we make in our everyday activities as well as the direction in our lives – “we go where we are looking.”

Where is your mind’s eye focused right now? Do you focus on avoiding pain or are you seeking opportunities and benefits? Do you choose to focus on success or are you looking to avoid failure?

Are you mostly positive in your thinking? And when you are not, why not? How aware are you of your automatic responses? Who is minding your mind?

As you learn how to master your mind’s eye, you can make choices about how you think, feel and act in any given moment. You can train your brain to look for opportunities and to go beyond obstacles, just as great athletes, musicians and actors do.

When leading at the edge‚ you must learn to continually block negative states of mind and cultivate the factors that enhance positive mental states.

Leaders who learn how to programme their bodies and emotions to follow their mind will always outperform others. Personal leadership competence is a result of being aware of and regulating your mental states and emotions.

Current brain research has significantly advanced the understanding of how the brain works to allow high performing leaders to be – and stay – on the cutting edge.

It is now possible to see how the brain reacts to stimuli, both positive and negative, how it reacts to pain and pleasure, how neuron connections are made and how they are lost.

By understanding how the brain is wired, we can learn to rewire it and create the conditions that enable us to become truly high performing leaders.


3. Build success through your secure base relationships

Your secure base is someone who gives you a sense of protection, is a source of positive inspiration and provides comfort in times of stress, frustration or failure.

While everyone needs to be their own secure base in order to feel self-confident, we never outgrow the need for external secure bases. Very talented people often fail because they either lack secure bases or choose the wrong ones.

The people to whom a leader listens and who influence him or her are a powerful resource. The secure bases who have nurtured a person from childhood to the present day can provide profound insights into the mind of the leader.

High performing leaders seek continuous improvement through feedback. They have a relentless desire to develop and improve their performance. These leaders are “teachable” and “coachable.” They then model this attitude so that it becomes pervasive through all levels of their organisations.

No athlete or top performer would envisage training without a coach, a mentor or a teacher. Yet often we hear of leaders who are “lonely at the top” and overly self-reliant.

Leading at the edge requires leaders to surround themselves, in both their personal and professional lives, with people who can act as secure bases – colleagues, team members, bosses, coaches, spouses, friends and others who support them in their endeavours and have their best interests at heart.

The purpose of a secure base is to create a sense of security and protection so that the mind’s eye can focus on creativity, curiosity and exploration. At the most basic level, our brains are focused on survival and avoiding danger.

However, when you have secure bases, you feel safe in the world and seek to explore, just as a child does when surrounded by secure bases.

Without secure bases, you become prone to anxiety, thus limiting your potential, hindering your chances of success and placing yourself at risk of being taken hostage by your own emotions and beliefs.

With the support of secure bases, you can attain goals that might seem unreachable because they believe in you more than you believe in yourself. Some of the greatest achievements come when bosses push themselves and others into situations that they do not yet know how to handle.

However, because of the confidence placed in them by their secure bases, they are likely to succeed. If by chance they fail, they feel protected and encouraged to learn from the experience. Either way, positive self-esteem expands.


4. Lead through effective communications

High performing leaders inspire and engage others with language. Even their non-verbal language can enliven others.

A hallmark of high performance leaders is their ability to influence others through all levels and types of communication, from simple interactions to difficult conversations and more complex conflicts, in order to achieve greater team and organisational alignment. Leaders must be excellent at talking, dialoguing and negotiating.

These exchanges, when well done, can alter the destiny of another person or team for the better; if done badly, they can have adverse effects on people.

High performing leaders know how to connect and bond with people. They are able to unite diverse team members by building common goals and even shared emotions by engaging in powerful and effective dialogue.

They are compassionate and attentive, yet open and bold in handling conflicts. By using their emotional skills, they can engage others to perform at the highest level and to achieve stretch targets.

Leaders must be experts in managing the emotions of others through their own social intelligence. Effective dialogue helps to regulate the emotions of others in a positive way, to make things happen, to change mindsets and to inspire people.

Hostage negotiators have a 95% success rate in influencing and persuading hostage takers to release their hostages and to give up their weapons, even though the hostage takers know that they will probably go to prison.

Leaders can learn to reach a similar level of communication effectiveness. By understanding what is really going on in a conversation, they are able to respond in a meaningful way to engage in mutually influencing exchanges.

High performing leaders are passionate in their desire and ability to listen, observe and respond effectively. They understand that others may even identify with them and feel comfortable with this position.

Leaders’ social intelligence lies in their understanding of others: their ability to motivate people by using the most appropriate leadership style for any given situation.

By understanding their own preferred leadership style, they can also develop other leadership approaches that may be of benefit in other circumstances and with different people.


5. Leading through conflict management

Changing negative conflicts into positive engagement is crucial for organisations to perform well. High performing leaders are able to deal with disputes, disagreements and diverse points of view about strategy and implementation to create energy, bring about change, stimulate creativity and help form strongly bonded teams in full alignment.

Organisations that encourage people to raise difficult issues find that doing so leads to innovation, new goals and the changes needed to achieve them.

This approach has been adopted by many of the world’s largest multinationals, as well as law enforcement agencies, humanitarian agencies and governments.

Conflict manifests itself as a difference between two or more people or groups characterised by tension, disagreement, emotion, polarisation, where bonding is broken or lacking.

The most important conflicts are the ones in which people feel personally invested in their positions or are bringing something of themselves as human beings into the interactions. When managed well, these conflicts lead to deeper team engagement and to more positive results.

Companies are increasingly diverse, with a large number of interdependencies that increase the potential for misunderstandings or disagreements.

As a manager, you are one voice among many. Your responsibility is likely to exceed your authority. You inevitably face conflicts. Dealing openly with conflict will improve your chances of achieving your goals.

Leaders prepare, rehearse and do not shy from “putting the fish on the table”, raising often difficult issues in a constructive and respectful way for everyone’s benefit.


6. Leading in a fragmented world

Among the many challenges that leaders confront in the 21st century, fragmentation in executive teams and their organisations is often cited as a major barrier to execution and implementation.

Efforts to create shared goals and visions are undermined by diverse cultures and global dispersion as well as the shifting patterns of knowledge and expertise.

As a result of these trends, leaders are often faced with the question, how can we build “one organisation”, or even “one executive team”, focused on implementing shared goals?

Leaders can define and address the dilemma of conflict and consensus that often leads to fragmentation, they can learn to develop and build integrated groups and teams across global organisations, and they can create an organisation with “enough” shared purpose and direction to make change happen.


7. Leading through strategy

What are the requirements for sustainable success in increasingly volatile and uncertain markets? Leaders face many conflicting goals, such as whether to meet short-term financial targets or build a strong, sustainable institution.

In today’s turbulent world, the demands of strategic leadership are changing.

We are moving from a world of solving problems to one of creating strategic options and opportunities. We are moving from a world of defining strategies to one of defining strategic paths. All of these changes place new challenges on leaders and their teams.

Leaders must explore what it means to have a strategy in the current business environment, reflecting on the strategic role of the leadership team within the organisation and understanding the challenges of the overall strategy process on individual leaders.

By visualising alternative futures, leaders are able to clarify potential directions and options as a basis for enabling leadership choice.


8. Leading at the edge is a journey

High performing leaders understand that leadership is a journey rather than a destination.

They know how to motivate people even in times of change. They know that when people seem to be averse to change, they are not resisting the change itself but the pain of change and the fear of the unknown.

Like skilled hostage negotiators, high performing leaders know how to communicate the benefits of change so that their people are willing to accept temporary setbacks for better long-term results. Leaders drive sustainable change by understanding the role of bonding in creating high performing teams.

High performing leaders know that learning to lead at the edge is a lifetime process of discovery. By playing to win, rather than playing to lose, leaders make work a more exciting, enjoyable and engaging place for themselves and all those around them.

With this foundation, running the business and implementing strategy will be much more successful.

Questions to ask

  • How much do you manage your mind’s eye? Do you use your mind’s eye to focus on the benefit or the pain?
  • How effective are you at “playing to win”?
  • Do you give and receive enough honest feedback?
  • Do you seek to resolve conflicts with mutual respect?
  • Do you know how to bond with people at all levels and from all backgrounds?
  • Who are the people in your life who have been or who are secure bases for you, helping you to develop your talents to even greater levels?
  • Who are the people who have helped to shape your leadership style?
  • How well do you communicate and create effective dialogues in your company?
  • Does your organisation have a shared purpose and direction that unites the team?
  • Do you think it is possible to learn to like dealing with conflict? How well are you able to control your own fight or flight instincts when dealing with difficult emotional situations?
  • How can you drive an integrated change effort throughout your business?
  • What role does strategy play in your leadership? Have you examined and understood all the strategic options?
  • What is your attitude towards learning?


George Kohlrieser is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at International Institute for Management Development (IMD), a former hostage negotiator, and author of the award-winning bestseller Hostage at the Table: How Leaders Can Overcome Conflict, Influence Others and Raise Performance. His other book is Care to Dare: Unleashing Astonishing Potential through Secure Base Leadership.

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This article is published by the editors of Leaderonomics.com with the consent of the guest author. 

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