Executives often ask me what the latest trends I see developing in the leadership field are. One trend I always point to is a widespread shift to “applied leadership.” Applied leadership is the practical and tangible implementation of leadership skills specific to a given work environment or business initiative. It is based on actual, hands-on experience instead of abstract knowledge.

Most organizations are chaotic, lively places with no time for conceptual learning that, while intellectually stimulating, adds little to the bottom line. Leadership is developed through actively performing duties instead of merely reading about “how to be a great leader.” Experiential learning has proved enormously effective, producing sustainable growth in individual leaders and in the businesses they reside within.

When focusing on a business initiative, the ideal leadership approach and the culture necessary to facilitate this approach must be clearly established. Applied leadership requires the leader-in-training to understand the context of their work. Before a leader can close gaps and advance performance in a company, the leader needs a thorough grasp of the environment they are functioning in.

Leadership development should also be viewed as a business goal. In an applied leadership model, leadership can and should be measured and monitored as any other business goal would be. The luxury of going off to a training course for conceptual information should no longer be an option for a leader. At most 10 percent of this information will ever even make it back to the office. Instead, leadership training should be built into actual work capable of being concretely monitored and charted.

In a real life example, a client company in a tumultuous industry recognized the need to refresh its leadership strategy. In the course of formulating a strategic plan, we included a specific process to assess (1) the culture required for the strategy to be successful, (2) the leadership approach needed to increase the robustness of the results, and (3) the engagement level required by employees to bring everything together.

Senior executives embraced this process as a core component of the overall planning process. This core component was afforded as much attention as the strategies themselves, and appeared in the company’s balanced scorecard to be measured on a regular and consistent basis alongside the usual financial and customer service goals.

The core component focused first and foremost on was leadership. Leaders set the tone for and the pace of change. They create the culture in which people do (or fail to do) their best work. Their efforts must engage others in a manner that enthusiastically supports the aims of an initiative. The core component also addressed employee culture and four stages of performance to be tracked (assessment, alignment, execution and achievement).

Leadership and Culture

To change the performance of our businesses, we need to change the performance of our leaders while transforming the environments they are responsible for. To achieve this, there must be:

  • A dramatic shift in the way leaders view their roles while creating an environment where people excel, and then getting out of the way.
  • Proper guidance, processes and tools available to enable people’s transitions without leaders doing the actual work for those transitioning, hindering their learning.
  • A widening of personal perspectives, allowing employees to understand their unique and important contributions to their company’s mission and goals, while encouraging creativity in reaching these goals.
  • Group focus on the big picture, beyond any one job, in which all employees apply their critical thinking and decision-making to a broader context, be it departmental or global in scope.

Four Stages of Growth

This organic approach to successful implementation of business initiatives has, as its name suggests, four distinct stages:

  1. Assessment: Leadership, cultural, and functional changes needed for a business initiative to succeed are assessed.
  2. Alignment: Leadership tactics, workplace culture, and functional requirements are adjusted to prepare for an initiative’s execution.
  3. Execution: The business initiative is executed with as much emphasis on leadership and culture as on the functional content.
  4. Achievement: The aim of an initiative is successfully realized.

Too often, businesses skip directly to the execution stage. Without the first two stages, the expected power of a business initiative often will fail to materialize. And too often, leaders focus on functional requirements only, leaving the cultural and leadership components to chance and neglecting their importance. Again, the result is a business initiative that fails to deliver the anticipated results.

At each stage, the business initiative must acknowledge the culture impacted. Business plans are frequently written with the implicit assumption that the writers of the plan are the only people involved in plan implementation. These plans generally fail to include a communication or employee engagement component that would encourage wider acceptance and personal employee ownership of the plan.

The “Four Stages” integrated approach to increasing a business’s growth trajectory consistently amps up business performance. It makes cultural and leadership development initiatives actionable by incorporating user-friendly language, effective diagnostic tools, clear action plans, and precise measurements to track progress. Culture and leadership become accessible for business performance improvement and leaders are energized to commit to company initiatives, leading to real competitive advantage.


Barbara Osterman
About The Author Barbara Osterman [Full Bio]
Barbara Osterman, founder and owner of Human Solutions LLC, is a business leadership consultant and cultural catalyst. She supports organizations in increasing business performance and results by successfully weaving business initiatives and culture transformations.

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