This entry begins a series on active coping and its relationship to leadership. I developed a psychological model of leadership by studying the theories behind the concept of active coping and the qualities required for effective leadership. I thought about what effective leaders did, felt, and thought; why they behaved as they did, why they made the decisions they made, and why those actions were effective—or not. I condensed these thoughts and theories down to create my personal definition of effective leadership: leadership is effective when it influences the actions of followers toward the achievement of the goals of the group or organization.
Working with this definition, I identified four interconnected parts, four elements of the active coping style: integrity, psychological autonomy, integrative capacity, and catalytic coping. These elements seemed necessary to engender and sustain effective leadership.[i]
Integrity depends on the consistency of your behavior in accordance with your values and ideals.[ii] Leaders who demonstrate integrity earn the trust of their followers, their superiors, and the community. This trust allows them to function more efficiently, because they don’t have to spend a long time getting acceptance and approval for each action they take.
Lack of integrity causes leaders to act erratically because they are not strongly connected to a secure or consistent system of values. They are unreliable leaders, often favoring their personal whims over the interests of others and may damage their organizations or communities by their selfish actions.
Psychological autonomy involves the ability to recognize and respect the aims and feelings of others while purposefully striving to achieve a goal or path. It is the ability to make and impose choices on the world—the opposite of groupthink. Psychological autonomy gives a person the freedom to choose the most effective course of action.[iii] Leaders with high psychological autonomy can respectfully disagree with their followers, their colleagues, and their superiors. They have the confidence to take an unpopular but necessary action and stand firm against doubt and disapproval.
Conversely, those with low psychological autonomy capitulate to pressure from their subordinates, peers, and authority figures. They require the safety of consensus.
Integrative capacity is an ingrained ability, developed through practice, of drawing together diverse elements of a complex situation into a coherent pattern. It is, literally, the capacity to integrate information from your own self and surroundings, into a new and greater understanding of the tapestry of life.[iv] Leaders with strong integrative capacity are aware of their emotions and motivations, as well as their weaknesses. They have open minds, accepting input from all sources. Then they put together what they know about themselves with the realities of their situations to create a deep understanding of possibilities.
Leaders with poor integrative capacity have a narrow focus, ignoring any information that doesn’t fit their limited worldview. They may have little awareness of their own motivations and states of mind and therefore fail to understand the motivations of others. They lack an understanding of mutuality. They deal with events one at a time, blind to the connections between them, unable to extrapolate into the future.
Catalytic coping is the ability to invent creative, effective solutions to problems and then carry them out. It is the most overt expression of active coping, the easiest to observe and measure. Leaders strong in catalytic coping always seem to have thought out several options to resolve each problem. If there isn’t an option, they create one. They develop detailed plans and execute them. That does not mean they are rigid; if conditions change and the plan ceases to be effective, catalytic copers immediately rethink their options and adjust the plan.
Leaders who lack catalytic coping do not look, think, or plan ahead. If they come up with a plan, it often lacks depth or creativity. They will stick to it whether it suits current conditions or not. They seem lost when faced with difficult or unusual conditions and may fail to take timely action or any action at all.
These elements are not entirely different factors; they are elements of a whole style of being. If you wonder whether the four elements of active coping carry different weights in predicting leadership effectiveness or general adaptation to life, consider this analogy. Are there relative weights for the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, and neurological systems of bodily functioning, to name only a few? One could argue that one system is more crucial than another—but the fact is that if any of those systems ceased to operate, the body would die. If any became relatively dysfunctional, such dysfunction would affect the entire body. In the same way, the four elements of active coping rely on each other to function effectively.
Another good analogy is a Greek temple—solid, stable, enduring, as the picture at the beginning of this post suggest. The building’s strong pillars support a wide triangular pediment and roof; intact, it can withstand nature’s onslaught for centuries. This iconic structure illustrates well how the elements of active coping are a crucial part of active coping as a whole. Each element—integrity, psychological autonomy, integrative capacity, and catalytic coping—is like a pillar. Each supports the active coping “roof,” which covers and encompasses them all. If one pillar is missing, the structure loses stability and strength. If several pillars are missing, the structure crumbles. But if all four pillars are in place, the structure will stand firm for many years. I look for this active coping structure when I am trying to identify executive candidates who will stand the test of time in a challenging position.
[i]There are other elements that are important in some cases but not as important in other cases, for example, self-esteem. Self-esteem is a reflection of self-confidence, self-respect, and self-worth.
[ii]See Pratch, “Integrity in Business Executives,” 1-45.
[iii]See Pratch and Jacobowitz, “Optimal Psychological Autonomy.”
[iv]See Pratch and Jacobowitz, “Integrative Capacity.”
Leslie S. Pratch is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. A clinical psychologist and MBA, she advises private equity investors, management committees and Boards of Directors of public and privately held companies whether the executives being considered to lead companies possess the psychological resources and personality strengths needed to succeed. In her recently published book, Looks Good on Paper? (Columbia University Press, 2014), she shares insights from more than twenty years of executive evaluations and offers an empirically based approach to identify executives who will be effective within organisations – and to flag those who will ultimately very likely fail – by evaluating aspects of personality and character that are hidden beneath the surface.