Readiness—A Framework for Leadership

by Geof Lory

In my last article, "Leadership Styles through the Team Stages," I overlaid a Situational Leadership® model from Dr. Paul Hersey, with the state of the team (i.e. forming, storming, norming or performing), to determine the most effective leadership style for the situation. The underlying premise of this relationship of leadership style to team state is the concept of readiness. I'll define readiness as the measure of the current state of knowledge, skills, abilities, confidence, motivation and commitment of individuals or teams relative to a specific situation, effort, or area of performance. Obviously, there's a lot going on in that definition.

Two primary factors make up readiness: ability and willingness. Ability is one's demonstrated skill at doing something, and therefore can be measured empirically. Ability may be binary, as in "able or unable to lift 100 pounds" or on a scale "able to play an instrument." Either way, it can be objectively examined and tested. The entire academic world is predicated on this approach, unfortunately (more knowledge than ability) ... but I'll save that rant for another article.

Willingness is a bit more elusive but can still be perceived or measured. Unlike ability, willingness is rarely binary, but rather exists along some continuum that is a combination of confidence, motivation and commitment. What makes willingness more difficult to assess is the underlying cause of the willingness or unwillingness to even make an attempt. Confidence, motivation and commitment certainly all contribute to willingness, but they are distant cousins when it comes to understanding, instilling and measuring them in people and teams.

It is no surprise then that leadership, and applying the appropriate style of leadership, requires a keen understanding of the abilities and willingness of the team and team members. This readiness can be simplistically graphed in the following four-quadrant matrix. (I am finding that as I get older I cannot remember more complex relationships, so simplifying in this fashion works for me. In reality, as both axes are continuums, life and people are not this neat.)

To make this even simpler, at least relative to applying a leadership style, I'm going to approach this matrix in halves—left half first and then bottom half.

Left half—Unable. In this half the key is ownership. If someone is truly unable to perform a task, it is not fair to ask them to be accountable for it. Minimally, the ability needs to be developed to an appropriate level before ownership can be accepted, regardless of the willingness. That is not to say that hope should be abandoned on the left side; this is the starting point for learning. Performance just won't happen in the far left side. It can't.

Along the continuum of Unable to Able, it is important to distinguish between the three elements that make up the competency portion of the readiness definition—knowledge, skills and abilities. We often assume these are one and the same, yet in reality they are quite different. Knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, and actually doing it all build on each other, but should not be assumed to naturally or inherently follow one another. (Ask any golfer.) To move along the continuum from left to right we need education, practice, and an honest and objective feedback loop. Training, mentoring and on the job opportunities give us the chance to progress to a state of competency. However, movement along the ability line is unlikely if we are not also moving up the continuum of willingness. The seeds of performance need fertile ground in which to grow and flourish.

Bottom half—Unwilling. Here the key is desire. Even if someone is able to do something, if they lack the confidence, motivation or commitment it just won't get done or done well. Desire, and the specific underlying reason for the want, will alter the approach to helping team members move along this continuum. As leaders, we have to instill confidence, provide motivation and create commitment if we want our teams to become high performing and produce at the highest level possible.

Throughout a project life cycle, teams and people will vary considerably in their collective and individual states of readiness. This readiness will govern the approach or style of leadership and to a large degree the success of the leadership experience for both the leader and those being led. Recognizing the state of readiness is a critical competency of leaders if they are going to apply a positive and productive approach to teams. The same is true of parenting.

As children mature, they move along both continuums at varying speeds. They stall, regress and advance, often without announcement. We, as parents, are left to determine their state based on the demonstrated and observed behavior and then apply the appropriate parenting approach for the situation. This requires tremendous awareness and flexibility of response.

We tend to think that younger children are governed more by ability, since physical and mental competencies are still in their infancy. However, I believe that the top half will determine the right half; desire will create ability. It disappoints me that schools no longer provide feedback on effort and attitude in the reporting process. I remember those grades carrying more weight with my parents than reading, writing or arithmetic.

With my daughters, I have seen the impact of willingness on ability in a number of instances, and have been able to grow the readiness by discovering ways to increase confidence and add motivation.

For example, my youngest daughter, Erika, like many kids, had an intrinsic desire to mow the grass when she was a pre-teen. Initially, she was physically unable to do the work in a safe and reliable manner. She needed to develop the knowledge (how to start the mower, empty the bag and fill the tank), and skills (the strength to safely handle hills and other obstacles), so she could become physically able to perform this job. Her desire drove her to acquire these skills, and my desire to have my weekends free of this chore enticed me to continually encourage her until eventually she was capable, and ownership of that job could be safely transferred to her.

So now Erika mows the lawn and her sister doesn't. Why? Desire! Confidence, motivation and commitment in conjunction with the developed ability to do the job. But just because she can, doesn't mean she will, or for that matter should. It isn't necessary or even desirable to have the two of them fighting over who is going to mow the lawn. It just needs to get done, and it was easier to tap into Erika's desire regarding this job than her sister's. Her areas of desire are entirely different. Recognizing and appreciating that in those we lead is one of our challenges and opportunities as leaders.

In the next article we will look at the tools and techniques of instilling confidence, providing motivation, and creating commitment so you, too, can have your weekends free to golf rather than mow the lawn.

Thanks Erika, Dad appreciates it. The check's in the mail.

Situational Leadership® is a registered trademark of the Center for Leadership Studies. Used with permission.

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