The Hard Science of Leadership

The hard science of leadership – published in Country Guide Magazine

by Kelly Dobson


 The X factor that can be quantified and developed into a competitive advantage that can mean the difference between success and failure, profit and loss, transition and an auction sale.

For many, leadership is the overlooked skill set that can explain why farms move forward, grow, and overcome difficult periods to successfully transition from one generation to the next. It can also explain why some don’t.  In recent decades, leadership, adult development and neuro science research have been converging. We now know that leadership can be developed at any age. When it comes to leader development, neuroplasticity is a six-syllable word for potential (I love big words). We also know that leadership can be developed to a degree that it can be a competitive advantage for your business.

According to a study of business performance and leader effectiveness, 37.6% of the variation in business performance was attributed to leadership, with a strong correlation that as leader effectiveness increases, so does business performance.  I think small business has yet to tap into leadership as competitive advantage.  How many farmers do you know who have been through a modern, science-based leader development program?

Leadership is the hard business of masterfully executing soft skills – skills that consistently develop and get the best out of others. The skills that solve complex problems by leveraging the collective expertise of our advisors without relinquishing control, and then enable us to make a bold decision without unanimous support. To get more of the things that matter done with better results.  The skills that empower us to wade into difficult conversations with those most important to us, and firmly stand your ground while staying curious because we know how, to know our own mind. Leadership are the skills that make business plans a reality, again and again, in good times and especially in the tough ones.

As a kid, I was fascinated by leadership on the playground.  How could a particular older kid achieve good results with his teams, a different one each recess, consistently? I was hooked, but it was a mystery to me. A half life lived later, and I’ve decided to take my childhood fascination and all the leadership experiences and education in between, and support small and medium sized business leaders, who struggle to access professional leader development, but need it just as much.

Leadership has existed since humans worked collectively to increase their survival odds but has only been formally studied over the last half century.  Today, what makes leaders effective is well known and can be accurately measured – you can have your leadership assessed and compared to a data base of leaders, by those who know your leadership best – those you lead.

I’ve heard effective leadership explained away as luck (which has been shown to be a significant and overlooked factor), smart moves (how does that happen over and over?), strong management (that explains the smart moves, but how are they consistently able to execute so well everywhere, all the time?).

Leadership is an X factor, an awesome sauce that can be applied to every aspect of your business and make it better. In that way leadership is soft, allowing capable leaders to make an impact everywhere because they positively influence at every encounter with a residual effect. Its as if they’re everywhere in their business all the time, except some weeks they aren’t there at all, and smart decisions continue to be made.  Leadership produces effectiveness in others and has nothing to do with good cell reception.

Over the coming issues, I want to share what research says about which leadership competencies are most strongly correlated to leader effectiveness, and what reactive tendencies kill leader effectiveness. Reactive tendencies are the behaviours we express everyday, that we adopted out of our childhood and have served us reasonably well as adults.  The problem with these behaviors, is that they are an unsustainable way of leading and can be over used. Like a narrow chemical rotation, overdoing a reactive tendency can have negative consequences, and without realizing, turn a reasonable approach into a crippling life and business limiting defect.  A limitation that can explain why some farm businesses fail to thrive, and transition. Even if these reactive tendencies are kept in check, this level of leadership is insufficient today, and will be to leadership in the future, as discers or the double disc press drill are to seeding today.  Just as seeding technology has a future, so does leader development – collaborative, differentiated, appreciative, and connected.

What does it take to build leadership to the point you can feel it and see it on the bottom line? I will share what professional leader development really is. I will also make my best arguments that developing your leadership is really the only answer we have to succeeding in VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous – i.e. farming) where our default desire is for an SCSC existence (Stable, Certain, Simple and Clear).

I believe in our industry, where so many enterprises are undergoing generational transition, leadership is the overlooked factor that allows one generation to confidently step back, and another to step up. Its also what makes choosing the right technical solutions for transition far smoother. What does each leader want and need from the plan? Can each of them describe it, so everyone clearly understands?

Enter Leadership. Stay tuned.

Kelly Dobson is President of LeaderShift Inc. where he supports and develops leaders of small and medium sized firms through coaching, leader development and advising. Kelly is a fourth-generation farmer at Fairfax, MB. You may contact Kelly at