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Essential Leadership Conversations

“Leadership means influencing the organisation to face its problems and to live into opportunities… mobilising people to tackle tough challenges… is what defines the new job of the leader… At the highest level, the work of the leader is to lead conversations about what’s essential and what’s not.”

These insightful words from Ronald Heifetz (lecturer in public leadership at Harvard, and author of several books including The Practice of Adaptive Leadership) encapsulate the everyday expectation we have of leaders at all levels – and how we determine whether leadership is happening. In our contemporary environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), it’s the conversations about problems, opportunities, challenges and responses that characterise a leader’s influence.

And within those conversations, as Heifetz notes, lies the discerning and disciplined task of making sure we’re leading conversations about what’s essential and what’s not.

That’s not simple, because it’s easy to assume everything is important. And easier to assume that something is important simply because it’s urgent, loud or persistent. And easier still to assume that what we need to talk about is what is bugging or enthralling us the most.

If everything is essential, then nothing is. And if we don’t have a means of separating the essential from the non-essential then we won’t be leading the conversation – we’ll be confused by it. If we don’t deal with the essential then we’ll be adding to the confusion rather than leading others out of it.

Given that conversations are at the heart of leading, influencing and developing others, and given their constant presence in our daily work, it’s worth considering how we can help ourselves and others lead conversations about what’s essential and what’s not. Here are three ideas, drawn from Heifetz and others, that might help:

1. What’s essential is what aligns with our values

This works both as a guide and a reflection – that is, you can tell someone’s values by what they focus attention on. By definition we establish something’s value by whether and how much we pay attention to it. So if you want something to have value – to reflect the ‘essence’ of your business – then talk about, focus attention on it. If you’re not talking about something then there’s a good chance it doesn’t have much value.

And if you’re the leader what you talk about sends very clear signals about what has value.

Our conversations help others understand what has value and why; they help people see the value in what they are doing individually, collaboratively and collectively. They help focus attention on what’s essential.

2. What’s essential is what helps us to develop adaptive responses to challenges and opportunities

“Mustering the courage to interrogate reality is a central function of a leader,” says Heifetz. Every day we have conversations about the current reality we are working in. Those conversations can take many forms: they can criticise, rationalise, empathise or theorise. But what really matters is whether they energise those involved so they can realise the significance of what needs to be addressed.

A leader’s role is “to help people face reality and to mobilise them to make change,” Heifetz says. This type of leadership, he says, “means influencing the organisation to face its problems and live into its opportunities.”

These types of conversations require a couple of disciplines. One is a ‘heads up’ perspective that maintains a clear view of the operating environment in which the ‘heads down’ work is being done. This enables us to bring context and focus to our conversations. Another discipline is to ask good questions. Questions direct attention and help us – and those with whom we are talking – to move beyond the familiar patterns and assumptions that reinforce the status quo and allow challenges to blindside us and opportunities to slide by.

3. What’s essential is what brings out the best in people.

Conversations that make a difference are leadership conversations – and conversations that make a positive difference to encouraging, enabling and acknowledging the best in people are conversations that make a difference personally and organisationally. Conversations that bring out the best in others – as much through challenge, creative conflict and constructive criticism as through encouragement, recognition and empathy – are essential if our conversations are going to influence and develop those we seek to lead. Bringing out the best in others expresses the value we place in them as well as encouraging the adaptive responses that we need.

Every day is filled with conversations. Many have the potential to be powerful and make a real difference – which is what we expect of our leaders. But to achieve this they need to focus on what’s of value, what helps us develop adaptive responses to challenges and opportunities, and what brings out the best in people.

So, where are your essential conversations happening now? When and with whom do you experience them? Where are they missing? Where might your essential conversations be better focused, richer and more powerful? Look for the values you can align with, the challenges and opportunities you can explore, and the best you bring out in others.

By Aubrey Warren

Published with permission from the International Institute of Directors and Managers (IIDM) –


Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”