The Case For The Cognitive Leader Of Tomorrow

It’s a common belief that the truest measure of a leader’s strength, of their effectiveness and ability to get the job done and done well, lies in the particular skills they bring to the team.

We typically hold close to the fact that a leader’s worth is directly connected to (and dependent upon) that special combination and application of inherent unique abilities as leaders commit to giving their utmost to move the organisation and the team forward.

These special traits, typically classified under cognitive (hard) skills and non-cognitive (soft) skills, cover a wide range of ideal behaviours and mindsets that we have come to expect of the best leaders.

While the former touches on those intellectually-based abilities that are directly connected to the way we think, reason, learn, and remember, the latter’s focus is on the emotionally-based ones, touching more on conscientiousness, perseverance, empathy, communication skills, and mental toughness and temperament.

The effective 21st Century leader has come to represent one who is able to lead and pay special attention to how they develop these skills...both sets of skills.

We all know of the importance of a leader being intelligent and resourceful but consider the fact that some leaders with high levels of intelligence are not able to lead effectively because they lack strong non-cognitive abilities such empathy/compassion, communication skills, even reliability and self-discipline.

It’s not about pointing fingers and saying this is where we go wrong. For many of us, cognitive and non-cognitive skills lie in a grey area where we believe that developing or augmenting one set of skills runs the risk of negatively impacting the other.

That is, if we become more empathetic, we’ll sacrifice reasoning and logic. Or, if we become more self-disciplined, we’ll lose our appetite for risk taking.

Leadership is a mix of all of that and more. And every leader brings their own particular mix to that leadership mix, in turn.

Regardless of the mix, true cognitive leadership requires intelligence, insightfulness, and reasoning as we implement the strategies we create for success AND it will require communication, empathy, and integrity as we build our teams in preparation for the present and the future.

Whatever the situation, once the call for effective leadership is sounded, it requires the careful interplay of cognitive and non-cognitive skills if it is to be truly answered.

Like so many things in life, many of us believe that this is easier said than done.

But it doesn’t have to be.

Fostering a culture where cognitive and non-cognitive skills not only work seamlessly, but harmoniously, should be a top priority for any contemporary leader.

And like every other priority in leadership, it will take practice to get right.

Moving Beyond Situational Leadership

Situational leadership is a style of leadership where leaders consider their teams’ readiness levels and the uniqueness of every situation. Divided into 4 categories – Directing, Supporting, Delegating, and Coaching – situational leadership requires leaders to develop closer relationships with their teams as they customise and align (realign) their leadership styles to the team’s development levels.

Successful situational leadership, therefore, requires an exceptional level of intelligence about the situation and then employing robust communication-based leadership in assessing the team’s skills, confidence, and motivation.

Granted that using the same leadership style for all situations and for the entire team may motivate some and demotivate others, the emphasis of situational leadership is to be flexible enough to adapt the team to any situation and the situation to the team.

Ordinarily that works. But one look at what is required and it’s easy to see how relying solely on situational leadership can be exhausting, especially given the frenetic pace of day-to-day business.

Imagine having to constantly pivot your leadership style and your team as the need and the situation arose. We may find ourselves in a constant state of flux and uncertainty as we seemingly “wait” for problems to present themselves just so that we have a situation to adapt to.

Now imagine cognitive leadership as being able to offer more than simply reacting to situations.

As a continuous practice of leaders and teams growing, becoming a cognitive leader calls for being more mindful of our leadership roles, and simultaneously using intelligence and reasoning to navigate the external environment and actively listening, speaking, and learning from each other as to bolster the internal environment.

In the end, through practice, there is greater cohesion and productivity in moving beyond simply adapting our style and our teams to a specific stimulus, to a place where we develop and can live by a holistic framework of ideal cognitive and non-cognitive behaviours that afford us the best opportunity to serve as leaders…regardless of the situation.

Cognitive Leadership is Not Problem Solving

Perhaps another grey area of becoming a more cognitive leader. While applying cognitive leadership as part of our developmental processes can help with many of the problems we face, becoming a cognitive leader is not about becoming a problem solver.

Yes, problem solving is an essential part of effective leadership but it should never define it.

Cognitive leadership is about (re)discovering who we are and building trust.

As leaders we need our teams to trust us and in our abilities to lead. Similarly, we need to also be able to trust in ourselves to lead. To achieve these, we have to become more attuned to the rudiments of what it takes to be a true leader, and more in touch with the idiosyncratic traits that we bring to the table as leaders in our right.

Simply put, a cognitive leader is one who understands what needs to be done and can mobilise the troops as they action it. They don’t need to have all the answers but they must be well informed and able to communicate clearly, honestly, and emotively with their teams if they are to get the best out of them.

They are someone who has the courage and judgement to lead their teams through tough times with insight and true grit, and is able to unlock the cohesive power of the team.

Becoming a cognitive leader is really a leap of faith within ourselves and then having complete faith in those around you as you continue to lead them. It is about having core values and staying true to them regardless of the situation being faced.

For example, let’s say that your organisation is faced with the difficult decision to downsize.

As you take into account the facts and figures behind the decision (cognitive), you will also no doubt place a high premium on the people aspects and how the team and the organisation will be affected (non-cognitive).

However, you must also take into account how the decision will affect you.

Even after the actual process has been completed, the problem (downsizing) hasn’t been solved and it’s completely natural to be upset as you part ways with staff. Being a more cognitive leader takes into account that, after careful consideration, a difficult decision had to be made and all that could be done was done. And it helps us move forward in our leadership path.

It facilitates a healthier understanding and acceptance of the weight of what it means to be leader, the decisions we make, the consequences we bear, and then allowing us to forge onward as we do the best for the team and ourselves.

Becoming a more cognitive leader helps us to better understand that the “how” and the “why” of the decisions we make in leadership are equally as important to us as they are to people we lead.

It’s Ok to Get it Wrong

This is the most vital step in becoming a cognitive leader – accepting that mistakes are going to be made along the way.

None of us are going to become perfect cognitive leaders. It would be insane to expect leaders to get cognitive leadership right of the bat.

Certainly not overnight.

We can, however, strive to be the best leaders we can be – for our teams and ourselves. Becoming that best involves

practice, failure, resiliency, and compassion.

In our evolution to better use both cognitive and non-cognitive skills in our leadership styles, to move away from simply leading situationally, and to having more faith in our abilities, core values, and teams, we are going to drop the ball a few times.

The cognitive leader who is able to forgive mistakes within the team must also be willing to forgive mistakes within themselves…as long as they are learned from and not repeated. We all make mistakes. How we recover from them is what makes the difference.

The journey to develop our cognitive leadership may indeed be the proverbial road less travelled by. But it is the one that makes all the difference.

All we can do is try.

What about you? What are some ways that you are developing your cognitive and non-cognitive skills in pursuit of becoming a better leader?

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