At the end of the presentation to the APTA CEOs two years ago, they and their senior executive teams were invited to complete a 360 assessment, called the eXpansive Leadership Model (XLM), as part of research in the transportation industry. The objectives were:
- Identify transit leaders’ strongest and weakest competencies
- Determine if these competencies predict leadership effectiveness
- Learn how well leaders actually manage paradoxical tensions
To date, 77 transit executives have rated themselves and invited 376 other people (boss, peers, direct reports ...) to rate them on the researched-based competencies assessed by XLM.
Of the 16 competencies assessed by the XLM, the four that transit executives scored the highest in are:
- Execute with passion and courage
- Choose responsibly
- Serve ethically
- Clarify objectives and expectations
The four competencies they scored the lowest in (often referred to as “developmental opportunities”) are as follows, with lowest scores listed first:
- Embrace ambiguity & paradox
- Know thyself & others
- Regulate emotions
- Cultivate innovative growth
Predicting transitLeadership Effectiveness?
To measure leadership effectiveness, the XLM asks seven questions related to how well the leaders actually lead. The scores of these seven questions were averaged to derive a composite leadership effectiveness score. The data was then analyzed to determine how well the XLM competencies correlated with perceived leadership effectiveness in the 77 transit executives.
The correlations for the highest and lowest scored competencies are seen in parenthesis below and in this type of research, correlations greater than .30 are considered significant, while correlations greater than .50 are considered high.
The correlations of the competencies that executives scored the highest in are:
- Execute with passion and courage (.58)
- Choose responsibly (.52)
- Serve ethically (.43)
- Clarify objectives and expectations (.52)
The correlations of the four competencies that transit executives scored the lowest in are:
- Embrace ambiguity and paradox (.56)
- Know thyself and others (.57)
- Regulate emotions (.48)
- Cultivate innovative growth (.59)
Although the leadership competency “Embrace ambiguity and paradox” is highly correlated with leadership effectiveness (.56), it is the lowest ranked of the 16 competencies assessed.
As Mike Scanlon, past chair of APTA and CEO at SamTrans remarked, “Are you telling us that we are least effective in the most important competency — the one that can help in today’s paradoxical environment?” Precisely.
Transit leaders are not alone in their need to develop this low-scoring skill.
The most common error was addressing one issue of a paradox independently of the other. The good news is, small improvements in managing paradoxical issues significantly increased firm performance.
Stretch When You Feel Pulled
Managing a paradox is analogous to sailing a small boat on a windy day. You get where you want to go by managing the tension between your hands and the wind — the “elements” of this paradox. Harnessing the tension keeps you moving toward your destination. Four ideas to keep you moving forward:
1. Look through other’s windows. Our point of view is not the only view. Understand that how we perceive our business challenge and environment at the present moment is not reality — it is our view of reality. Our view improves if we invite the “loyal opposition” to share their perspective. This will help develop the “flexible thinking” that Joe Calabrese, general manager of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, identified as critical in today’s transit leader.
2. Fail fast, small and learn. Leaders who embrace contrarian thinking often conduct little experiments to test assumptions and address issues. As Charles Odimgbe, CEO of Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, pointed out during the interview, “We must think outside the bus. This increases our agility to respond rapidly to our changing environment.”
3. Make the abstract concrete. Paradoxical thinkers are not dreamers disconnected from reality; they are visionary leaders who are in touch with their surroundings.