Leadership Performance

Staying Sharp at the Top

So, finally! You’ve made it to the Board/You’re the CEO/You have the crucial Seat at The Table. It’s taken years of dedication, hard work, long hours and probably some sacrifices to your home life along the way. You’re not only in charge of growth, of increasing profits and building market share, you’re also responsible for developing a positive, open and engaging culture for the people that work in the organisation.

After so many years of experience, of attending leadership courses, of reading management books and other learnings you recognise that the most impactful leaders don’t just rely on their knowledge; they also demonstrate a range of key behaviours that keep them highly effective as business leaders and in touch with the needs of employees, customers and shareholders alike.  

With so many responsibilities to juggle and packed diaries, it might seem indulgent to spend precious time reflecting on yourself and on areas for further and continuous personal growth. However, without constant self-evaluation it is all too easy to slip into prioritising business needs and supporting the development of the team around you rather than considering your own personal development. Successful leaders recognise the benefit of focusing on self, others and business and realise that, without sufficient focus on self, even leaders with the best track record can start to stagnate and fail to adapt to changing landscapes. 

In order to assess your current position, consider the questions listed below, think of real and recent scenarios, and score yourself out of 10, where 10 represents consistently high performance.

  1. How well do you manage to balance using your knowledge and experience to make decisions with a genuine curiosity for how things could be done differently? 
  2. How receptive are you to new ideas and ways and working when they are proposed by others? 
  3. How often do you seek out (and act on) ideas from people outside of your normal inner circle, for example customer facing teams / team leaders / new hires?
  4. Overall, to what extent would you say you have a growth mindset (the conscious ability to adapt and be open to change) versus a more fixed mindset of preferring to keep things consistent and stable over time and ‘do what you’ve always done’?
  5. How are you described by people throughout the organisation, and not just by those closer to you who might have given you 360 feedback? 
  6. How close is your informally discussed reputation to the one you aspire to have?
  7. How easily can you answer questions 5 and 6 above?
  8. How can you prove that you’re effectively demonstrating wide-ranging emotional intelligence? 
  9. How in tune are you with how your emotions drive your behaviours and decisions? 
  10. Which of your strengths might you over or under play in certain situations and what impact does this have on others? 
  11. How broad is the range of strengths you use in different situations and how well can you adapt and authentically connect with a diverse range of colleagues and employees? 
  12. What are your ‘blind spots’ when it comes to understanding others? 

One of the most fundamental areas we focus on with established leaders is their ability to adopt and foster a growth mindset (questions 1 – 4). A growth mindset rejects the ‘proof’ of what’s gone before and challenges the status quo. However, it can be difficult even for experienced leaders to maintain a growth mindset when they benefit from such a wealth of experience. Accepting the knowledge of experience as proof may be tempting for all of us but this can result in a fixed mindset; becoming less open to other options or outcomes. By contrast, purposefully focusing on searching out and sustaining a growth mindset (combined with cognitive diversity across a group of thinkers comfortable with disagreement) can lead to new ideas and approaches.  

Questions 5 – 7 relate to self-awareness. You no doubt know yourself pretty well by now but how aware you are of the shadow you cast when walking into different situations and of what people might be saying (both good and bad) when you leave the room? It often takes a brave employee to give honest feedback to the most senior person in the organisation.

Many senior leaders tell us a similar story: they started out in their career with fairly low self-awareness and on a more ‘broadcast’ setting – they had to stand out to be selected from the competition for graduate programmes, jobs and promotions that tend to reward more direct and assertive behaviours. As their career progressed over the years into management positions, they may have had a particularly great line manager or mentor, benefited from executive coaching, or just learnt through experience to pay attention to how their behaviours impact and influence others. They learned that listening is useful and potentially even powerful, so chose to talk less, focusing more on listening to both what people say and what they share through their non-verbal communication, leading to a better understanding of themselves and also of others and their motivations.

At a middle management level, with the need to manage both up and down, we often find managers at the peak of their self-awareness. But as individuals rise even further into the ranks of leadership it is all too common for them to admit that, very gradually, hardly without noticing, and without meaning to, they have stopped listening so much to others and become more reliant on themselves and on their preferred style of operating. In the work we do with senior leaders we recognise that, as the leader’s star rises, they often inadvertently make it harder for others to give them feedback or question them: few employees are courageous enough to challenge senior leadership decisions or point out unhelpful behaviours. Furthermore, at this level, a leader’s expectation of themselves might be that they should have all the answers by now anyway – the final buck stops with them and the ultimate decision rests on their shoulders – and that asking others for their ideas or feedback might be a sign of weakness.

Senior leaders are often aware of their strengths but perhaps less aware of how they might over-do those strengths. Behavioural blind spots, created through lack of feedback, reflection and a poor understanding of how they come across in different situations, ultimately make it harder to positively influence others – one of the cornerstones of good leadership.

Questions 8 – 12 relate to emotional intelligence. Key features of this, in addition to a growth mindset and strong self-awareness, are the ability to listen, empathise and self-manage effectively. It links also to the ability to demonstrate appropriate humility; willingness to get into the proverbial trenches with people, to fully collaborate with them, to say thank you when it’s appropriate and to follow the same rules that others are asked to follow. 

Research has proven that ‘command and control’ leadership where status and authority are used to get the job done and the key qualities of emotional intelligence are lacking, may work in certain situations and for certain organisations and for a certain amount of time, however, it also shows that organisations led with emotional intelligence are more successful in the longer term as they are more resilient to market fluctuations.

Once a leader has reached the top of an organisation it’s more important than ever to remain humble enough to listen, be empathic enough to know what matters to people and customers, and be flexible enough to remain agile to change and open to seeking new opportunities for continued learning.

Listening and being receptive to feedback may be tough; when honest feedback is requested the results can be uncomfortable. In order to self-manage effectively we need to understand ourselves at a granular level; our values, our triggers and our fears. If we can’t tune into our own inner dialogue effectively and listen empathically to the motivations of ourselves and others simultaneously, then we will have a hard job sustaining influence and engaging our people. 

As a senior leader, you have a huge amount of influence on all aspects of your organisation. Consider how your motivations, emotions and chosen behaviours impact the culture of leadership within your business. We are what we do; your leadership style will probably be emulated by many within your team, creating a style legacy which will run deep within the organisation. Highly effective senior leaders are those that are not only successful during their tenure but who leave an impressive legacy and a longstanding positive culture long after they’ve moved on.

DRIVE Leadership Performance

If you’d like to hear more about how you can stay sharp at the top then please get in touch by emailing us at and mark your email Leadership Performance.