What is your next leadership shift?

Coach in a BoxThe biggest shifts that leaders make - and those that have the most impact - involve a change of mindset. However our research, at Coach in a Box, shows that there are only a limited number of these changes that make the difference between good and great leadership. And it does appear that they can be learnt.

Most of us have had experiences when we make a big change and it has successful outcomes and positive effects on other areas of our lives. They are not easy to make but their impact is huge. And almost invariably they follow one simple rule - the most important changes start from the inside out, with a shift in mindset.

For most senior roles or professions the things that make the most difference cannot be learned from theory alone. The most important changes need to begin with a change in mindset. But because this is hard, we often over-compensate with knowledge and skills. We start on the outside and amass knowledge or master new skills. But unless we also shift our mindset as a leader, it is unlikely that we will ever get the change we want.

Identifying the leadership shifts

Since 2005, Coach in a Box has coached 17,000 individuals through 70,000 coaching sessions. As a result we have a unique window into the changes people find the hardest to make, and into those changes that make the most difference.

When we looked at all the data we had collected from these coaching sessions, we noticed that surprisingly few changes – or shifts – reoccur again in the data. It seems that as we progress through our lives there are certain changes that seem to be critical if we are to succeed.

And these mindset changes occur in four domains:

  • Be - New ways of being

  • Relate - New ways of relating to people

  • Think - New ways of thinking

  • Inspire - New ways of setting direction

Impossible Shifts - Coach in a Box

And within each of these domains there appears to be a series of three shifts that individuals go through as they mature and develop. We have called these three levels expert, advanced and mastery. In all, therefore, we have identified twelve leadership shifts - as shown in the diagram.

So what are the shifts?

To detail all twelve shifts would be beyond the scope of this article, but we can provide some details about the level one ‘expert’ shifts here.

‘Be’ expert level shift: emotional resilience

Leaders encounter this shift in a range of situations. For example, they may find there are certain situations that bring out the worst in then – or people who frustrate or wind them up. Maybe they want to be more confident in certain areas or to react differently and more resourcefully to particular situations.

The shift is about truly recognising your power to and your ability to choose your response. This is one of the most inspiring shifts for many people - recognising that no matter what the situation and no matter how big the challenge, you have it within yourself to respond in a confident, calm and empathetic manner.

And to do this you need be aware of your own emotions and able to pick out and challenge the beliefs that drive them.

‘Relate’ expert level shift: influencing others

This shift often occurs in a new leadership role or when working with people who think differently than you do. In our data, many people focus on this shift because there is a particular individual or group that they can’t relate to or influence. Or sometimes there is a performance problem they need to solve and they need to find a way of giving a difficult message.

It is all about empathy. It is about being able to really get into other people shoes and identify what they need and what might motivate and engage them. It is then about having the behavioural flexibility to adapt to this.

When coaches first master this shift it is often in the context of a particular relationship; for example, making a breakthrough with an individual they couldn’t get anywhere with. And by seeing success in this one particularly tricky relationship, it often gives them the confidence to tackle a range of other relationships using the new found insight.

‘Think’ expert level shift: breakthrough thinking

This shift is about how, as a leader, you champion innovation and are committed not to simply being ‘the best’, but to constantly seeking to be better. A core capability of leaders lies in their ability to hone in on an issue, find a new approach to tackling the problem, and support the resulting school improvement project through to its successful conclusion.

And to do this a leader needs to master the interplay of five thinking attributes: challenging, inquiring, analysing, solving and persevering. These attributes form the basis of the breakthrough thinking cycle. If any one of them is not used, the cycle fails to deliver its benefits.

Associated with the five thinking attributes, there are five traps that leaders often fall into - hence why many school improvement projects fail to have the impact they originally intended. Each trap limits a leader’s thinking capability and is driven by a particular set of beliefs or ways of understanding the world. Unlocking these traps can transform leaders’ ability to successfully support improvement initiatives in their schools.

‘Inspire’ expert level shift: finding my spark

This is classic coaching scenario. It is all about taking charge of a scenario, getting clear of your vision and going for it. Often individuals encounter it when they are leading a team or tackling a project and they find that just meeting the targets isn’t enough. Perhaps their team isn’t inspired. Or maybe the question is driven internally as they begin to think about the difference they want to make.

This shift is all about knowing what you stand for, being clear about what you want to change and being inspired about the future you want to create. It is about knowing yourself and what you want and having the vision to lead for it.

How can this help my school?

This leadership shifts model can bring an entirely fresh approach to planning leadership development in your school. If you can hone in on the shifts in your leadership that are most needed in your current context, to tackle your foremost challenges and move your school forward, then you can identify specific coaching or training that targets this shift.

Similarly, if you can use a leadership shifts diagnostic tool to analyse the current strengths and development areas of each individual in your leadership team, then you can target your school's limited leadership development budget to best effect.

For example, one of your senior leaders could be quite brilliant at working with their team (the 'Relate' domain), but may struggle with the fundamental skills of strategic thinking and innovation (the ‘Think’ domain). And you may have another leader whose strengths and weaknesses are the other way around. The leadership shifts that these individuals need to make are quite different, and you may want to set up very different coaching or training solutions to match their very different needs.

And finally, the model also has far reaching consequences for succession planning. Many successful principals grapple with how to build capability within their teams, so that their schools are less dependent on their own leadership - and, ultimately, could manage without them. What better legacy to leave than a team of leaders who have been supported over the years to make critical shifts in their leadership and, as a result, are more than ready to step into the Principal's shoes?

Jerry Connor

Director, Coach in a Box


Four Leadership Shifts for Principals and their Leadership Team will be delivered at Bastow Thursday 23 October 2014.