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Harnessing and sustaining energy: the science of good leadership

Published 15 September 2021 in Leadership • 7 min read • Audio availableAudio available

What is leadership? It’s a question as old as human society, yet one that still has not yet been answered in a coherent, fully actionable way. 

There is some agreement (I will return to this later) that leadership is distinct from management. Whereas effective managers engage in planning, coordination, and oversight, leaders have, as Warren Bennis put it, “the capacity to translate vision into reality”. Influence and the ability to inspire appear in many definitions of leadership. 

Leadership is the ability to mobilize and focus the energy of individuals, teams, and organizations to achieve desired goals on a sustainable basis.

Also broadly accepted is the idea that leadership is situational. Context matters and leaders need to adapt themselves to the realities they face. A related concept is that great leaders emerge in challenging times.   

In addition, research and practice have established that leadership skills can be developed. It is not the case, however, as Vince Lombardi famously put it, that “leaders are made, they are not born”, but some degree of in-built endowment does appear to be necessary.  

Beyond those areas of agreement, however, definitions of leadership vary greatly. In his 1974 Handbook of Leadership, Ralph Stodgill noted that “there are almost as many different definitions â€¦ as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.”  

At the risk of adding to the confusion, I developed the following definition and have explored it in senior executive programs at IMD with substantial success.  

This definition is inspired more by physics than psychology. In physics, work is defined as transforming potential energy (storage) into kinetic energy (motion). In the context of organizations, work is the conversion of the potential energy of individuals, teams, processes, and organizational capabilities into a coherent set of actions that achieve desired goals.  

Viewed through this lens, leadership is the ability to mobilize and focus organizations’ potential energy to do desired work. Mobilization means identifying and activating energy sources by, for example, articulating a compelling vision or fostering a sense of purpose that elicits discretionary effort from employees. Focus means directing that energy to achieve the desired work as efficiently as possible, for example, setting goals and driving accountability in ways that support their achievement.  

To be valid, a good leadership theory must first establish what leaders do and don’t do and then provide guidance on translating situational diagnosis into concrete plans of action. While interesting in its own right, the idea that the essence of leadership is mobilizing and focusing energy has to be operationalized to be useful.  

The place to start is to identify a core set of strategies leaders can employ to mobilize and focus organizational energy.  

Strategy and definition

Clarify your organization’s mission, vision, and reason for existence and enroll key people in them.

Identify potential contributors of energy and gain their support, perhaps by making mutually beneficial exchanges.

Understand what incentives will motivate key people in the organization to devote their energies in desired ways.

Thinking about leadership this way generates some additional insights into its nature. One is that the distinction between “mobilizing energy” and “focusing energy” provides an alternative, more helpful way of framing the difference between “leadership” and “management”. Mobilization involves the visioning, influence, and incentive-shaping elements traditionally associated with “leadership”. Focusing involves the direction-setting, decision-making, and execution elements usually associated with “management.” This helps avoid the tendency to view leadership as something better and more important than management.  

A second insight is that the energetic model also provides a new way of thinking about “power” in organizations. Continuing the analogy from physics, power is the intensity of concentration of energy to do work. In the context of leadership, power means the superior ability to mobilize and focus the energy of individuals, teams, and organizations, for example, by developing a compelling vision, exerting influence or instilling discipline.  

A third insight is that leadership involves more than mobilizing and focusing the energy of individuals and teams; it also encompasses doing so for organizational assets, processes, and capabilities. This is important because defining leadership as mobilizing and focusing the energy of systems and not just the people is a more general and useful conceptualization. The importance of viewing leadership in this way will continue to increase as the fundamental units of work in organizations evolve from being individuals to being “intelligent integrations” of people and algorithms.  

Strategy and definition

Define the “what” (goals/success measures), “how” (strategies/tactics), “who” (roles/duties), and “when” (plans/deadlines). 

Establish processes that shape how people make decisions that are consistent with the desired purpose and direction.

Drive efficiency, accountability, and excellence in execution.


Sustaining energy 

Having elaborated on the mobilize and focus dimensions, let’s return to the definition. Leadership is the ability to mobilize and focus the energy of individuals, teams, and organizations to achieve desired goals on a sustainable basis. Note that the “on a sustainable basis” aspect has not yet been addressed.  

Here, “sustainability” means sustaining the ability of the organization to mobilize and focus its energies in ways that generate continued success. This means replenishing existing energy sources, for example, by keeping teams motivated and avoiding burnout, and by investing in the development of new energy sources, for example, capabilities that increase productivity and efficiency. This is captured in three additional generic strategies: manage pace, foster vitality, and build capacity. 

Together these nine strategies to mobilize, focus, and sustain energy are the core of the Energetic Model of Leadership.  

The model also provides an actionable basis for assessing and developing leaders. It does so by clarifying what they most need to learn: define purpose, exert influence, and design incentives to mobilize energy; establish direction, align decision-making, instill discipline to focus energy; and manage pace, foster vitality, and build capacity to sustain energy. 

In summary, the Energetic Leadership Model conceptualizes leadership as the ability to mobilize, focus and sustain the energy of individuals, teams, and organizations. It provides specific, actionable strategies for doing this and a related agenda for leadership development. It expands the definition of what leaders do beyond impacts on people to effects on systems. Finally, it provides a basis for leaders to develop their abilities to mobilize, focus, and sustain their own energies, and so to “lead themselves to lead organizations.” 

As Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis, says in his LinkedIn newsletter, Managing My Energy, Not My Time: “I’ve found that rather than just managing my time and my calendar, I need to maximize my impact by consciously managing my energy. Similar to athletes, I have to prepare myself physically and mentally so I can perform at my best.”  

Strategy and definition

Balance the supply and demand for energy over time, surging when necessary and replenishing when possible.

Create and sustain healthy interpersonal relationships and high-performing team dynamics.

Develop individual and team competencies and invest in new organizational capabilities.

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Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 11 other books on leadership and negotiation. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. He taught at Harvard, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, and INSEAD before joining IMD, where he directs The First 90 Days and Transition to Business Leadership programs.


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