A License to Lead?

Before we allow people to drive a car on their own they are required to pass tests to prove that they understand and are competent in, the essentials of driving. If we consider the impact that leaders can have on the lives of the people they have a responsibility and duty of care for, and the organisations for which they work, it would seem to make sense to require a ‘license to lead’!

The question to answer is of course: If such a license were required, what would be the essentials needed to show basic proficiency before being allowed to be placed into such a position of influence?

We believe that Mintzberg was ‘on the mark’ in organising the essentials into three broad categories:

  • aligning people
  • creating and driving needed change
  • delivering exceptional results


Aligning people the starting point is that there is a clear and compelling vision of what the organisation aspires to become. It then requires the sub unit leaders to have a clear and compelling vision of what their work unit needs to do and be to support this. This localised vision should be understood in terms of their teams: culture, attitudes, performance, behaviours and capabilities – beyond the often bland and homogenised corporate values and behavioural frameworks often seen.

Leaders’ need to have on-going dialogue with their people to assure that the vision/s are shared: understood, committed to, and acted upon. The initial spark in creating these visions may come from them, but team members often add critical elements to make it/them truly compelling. Aligning people also means that the leader needs to engage in similar dialog with other leaders in the organisation as work is often so intertwined and interdependent. Getting people to go in the same direction sounds obvious and easy, but it requires lots of dialog!

Creating and driving needed change is certainly easier if people are aligned behind a shared vision. Then the leader can help people see that ‘what got us here won’t necessarily get us to there!’ It is critical for leaders to remember that leadership is not required to maintain the status quo. Their dilemma is to encourage people to experience the full joy of success and at the same time remind them that success doesn’t mean change isn’t necessary. The key is to find the essential changes, often small, that are needed to pursue the vision, then, focusing on supporting people in dealing with the denial and confusion caused by changing and adapting the very things that made them successful in the past. This may be through coaching, mentoring, enhanced internal communications, new development programmes, performance reviews or the leader being more directive in style and approach. The critical thing to avoid is just ‘falling into change’ and expecting things to work out – it won’t. Change (if it is such) will always requires shifts and adaptations in attitudes, behaviours, work orientation, skills and competencies.

Delivering exceptional results serves to remind leaders that they and their followers create results that ultimately support or undermine efforts made to achieve the vision.

‘Exceptional’ should serve to remind leaders that people need to ‘step up and out’ of their normal routines and practices that got them to where they are today – their ‘comfort zone’. That they need to be in their personal ‘stretch zone’ – learning new ways of being, thinking, acting and performing – needing to learn to succeed; and, at the same time, recognising that if overstretched, they will in the ‘panic’ zone; feeling over-whelmed and unable to contribute fully. When leaders get it right, people are challenged to become exceptional; working with a clear sense of purpose and determination.

Much could be added to the requirements for a ‘license to lead’ but show us a leader who aligns people, creates and drives needed change and delivers exceptional results, and we’ll show you a leader who knows the essentials and has passed the first test!


Original article, by Michael Couch (Senior Consultant at The Odyssey Group)

Updated article (02/2016), by Kevin Lawrence (Managing Director of the Odyssey Group)