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The Nine Themes of Outstanding Leadership

THINK systemically and ACT long term

Outstanding leadership acknowledges that achieving sustainable high performance requires navigating through complexity, appreciating nuances within a sophisticated world and making decisions in often unpredictable situations. Outstanding leaders do this through a combination of systemic thinking, that recognises the interconnected nature of their business environment, and acting for the long-term benefit of their organisation. In essence they can be thought of as playing a game of chess where each move and its potential repercussions need to be thought through. Outstanding leaders think and act in harmony, as one without the other is both unsustainable for the organisation and often damaging for their people.

Grow people through performance

Outstanding leadership recognises that corporate resilience, doing more with less and making breakthrough changes for long-term success, relies on the strength, commitment and initiative of people. Outstanding leaders passionately and constantly invest in their people and use the challenges presented every single day to encourage growth, learning and engagement. Achieving sustainable performance means building on triumphs and disasters to unlock people’s potential and nurture their long-term value to the organisation’s ultimate success. It also means engaging people’s enthusiasm, energy and curiosity to achieve more than they thought possible.

Understand that talk is work

Outstanding leadership depends on trusting and positive relationships that are built over time for the long-term benefit of the people and their organisation. Outstanding leaders therefore recognise the importance of finding opportunities for dialogue with their colleagues at every turn, using them to discover individuals and nurture social capital. This doesn’t mean creating ‘talking shops’ in order to avoid taking action, instead they view dialogue as the pre-cursor to acting effectively, efficiently and with commitment. Outstanding leadership means that leaders spend huge amounts of time talking with people to share stories of success and aspiration, encourage ideas and possibilities to emerge, discover hidden potential and/or problems and learn what inspires and engages others.

Put ‘we’ before ‘me’

Outstanding leadership means that everyone is committed and connected to the long-term goals of the organisation. Outstanding leaders appreciate this and work hard on issues such as team spirit, shared decision making, collaborative working and a strong bond within and between teams. Outstanding leaders constantly put the collective needs above their own, encourage others to take actions for the common good and enable their people to shape their future at every possible opportunity. Sustainable performance comes from a people-centred perspective that values collective wisdom and intent, encourages people to get involved in what really matters, gives them voice and autonomy over their work and recognises the limitations of the individual leader compared with the possibilities that come from a collective endeavour.

Give time and space to others

Outstanding leadership frees people to feel enabled and valued so that they can attain and maintain peak performance levels for the long-term good of the organisation. Outstanding leaders demonstrate a deep appreciation of this and transfer some of the time and power bestowed in them to those they lead. They both give significantly more time to people than non-outstanding leaders and allow their people considerably more freedom and influence over the work they do and how they do it. Outstanding leaders go beyond delegation and empowerment in that they philosophically believe that the power to initiate and act must belong with others. .

Bring meaning to life

Outstanding leadership enables a strong and shared sense of purpose across the organisation as sustainable high performance comes from a shared determination to overcome challenges for the long-term benefit of stakeholders, staff, customers and society. Outstanding leaders tangibly demonstrate this sense of purpose in their work, bringing meaning to what they and others do. Contributions are connected to the organisational purpose, people are respected for what they offer and what they aspire to so that they feel valued and purpose-full in their work. Outstanding leaders find an emotional connection for people; they focus on passion and on ethical purpose.

Self-aware and authentic to leadership first, their own needs second

Outstanding leadership requires a combination of adaptability and consistency as sustainable performance means responding to the ever-changing context in the pursuit of organisational purpose. Outstanding leaders unite a deep understanding of others, high levels of self-awareness and a systemic appreciation of their symbolic position to become a role model for others. This means that personal emotions and needs are balanced against the collective requirement, actions taken are in keeping with what is expected of them in their capacity as outstanding leaders, the long-term impact of their decisions are considered to minimise inconsistency and incongruence. In essence, their sophisticated approach to how they act with others suggests that outstanding leaders work very hard to avoid acting in haste and repenting at leisure.

Apply the spirit not the letter of the law

Outstanding leadership focuses on the few key systems and processes which help. They attend to the practices that provide clarity, give people structure, provide the opportunity for feedback, give time for discussion and enable the crafting and honing of vision. They do so to fulfil purpose, not process. These are the touch points that facilitate leadership. Outstanding leadership minimises any negative effects of process. Leaders always keep in mind the person and will put flexibility and humanity before the consistent application of rules.

Take deeper breaths and hold them longer

Outstanding leadership facilitates trust at all levels in organisations. It understands the power of trust to act as the oil in the organisational system – how it speeds up interactions, enables people to take risks, diminishes arguments and disputes and underpins innovation. Outstanding leaders actively build trust by delivering on promises and acting with consistency, which in turn, leads to a sense of security and greater freedom of expression. They invest time building strong relationships so that others place their confidence in them and the direction they are heading. They consciously preserve trust through exploration of failure and acceptance of errors, acknowledging that people will only achieve great things if they are given the opportunity to try. Outstanding leaders demonstrate their trust in others by liberating them to experiment and innovate whilst ‘holding’ the element of risk involved.

When considered together, these nine themes can be distilled into three big ideas that act as the centre of gravity for outstanding leadership:

First of these is the centrality of thinking and acting systemically on behalf of the organisation. Outstanding leaders understand and consistently act in the knowledge that reaction follows action. They are deeply mindful of what they do and how they behave. They understand that development and stretching people to achieve beyond what they thought possible unleashes energy, they understand that empowering people frees them to make a difference and that this drives engagement. They attend to the current and the future because one depends on the other and they embody both ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ seamlessly – as routes to make a difference.

Secondly outstanding leaders believe that people are the route to performance. They give time to others because they understand that the social capital between people and the human capital within people are both essential. They genuinely understand that outcomes such as productivity, quality, innovation and great customer care are all achieved by engaging with others, enthusing them, growing them, building confidence, creating conditions of trust and passing power.

Finally the leaders themselves are important here. They understand that they achieve through their impact on others and so fully appreciate the difference they make. This is not about personal ego, they are often quick to acknowledge weaknesses and are keen to empower and pass influence to others. Rather it is a humble awareness of the need to use themselves with care and respect and with full self awareness and reflection. Outstanding leaders act consciously.

The executive summary, and the full report, can be viewed on The Work Foundation website –