Savvy – shrewdness and practical knowledge; the ability to make good judgments
Defining great leadership is often less tangible than check marks against competency or value frameworks. The concept of savvy leaders is one that can be defined as simply, “leaders who get it”. Leaders who know how to navigate organizations, relationships, and cultures. Leaders whose decision making is sound and well-intentioned. Leaders who have a “je ne sais quoi” about them (a quality that cannot be easily described or defined).
Here are three dimensions of savvy leadership that make distinctive leaders:
Organizations are complex and unique. They can be incredibly mature and have existed for more than 100 years, maybe metamorphosing on many occasions. Or they can be vibrant start-ups. Of course, there are variations in between.
Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow discuss the subtleties of organizations in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: “To identify adaptive challenges confronting an organization, look beyond what people are saying about them. Listen to the song beneath the words.”
Leaders who “listen to the song beneath the words” have a profound organizational savvy about them. These leaders detect the ebbs and flows of an organization. They understand the pulse, the rhythm, and the direction of an organization. In their leading they have a passion and belief in the organization – to grow or change it.
Relational savvy is critical in leadership. Navigating through relationships with skill, sensitivity and selectivity is a core leadership capability.
Emotional intelligence is the heartbeat of relational savvy. Knowing oneself profoundly, understanding others in a deep way, and having an intuitive antenna to read context, are all part of being emotionally intelligent. Often the best leader is one who draws from his or her maturity, insight, and foresight to ensure that relationships support the mission and goals at hand, rather than undermine or damage them.
Demonstrating a collaborative, engaging, and curious mindset is a great way to build a rapport that leads to trust. Trust is a commodity that lies at the root of relationship savvy. Inspiring, believing in, and empowering others are all ways to develop trust. There is also a very personal element to trust and relationship savvy – leaders who show vulnerability, personal interest, and intentional purpose have a solid foundation for strong and meaningful relationships.
How does a leader “read” the culture of an organization? “How things get done around here”, is a useful definition of culture.
Edgar Schein describes culture in Organizational Culture and Leadership as operating at three levels: artefacts, espoused values, and the deepest level of basic assumptions. It is important to understand the impact of artefacts, values, and assumptions in the way an organization operates, relationships are built, and work gets done. Schein expands his definition of culture as, “a multidimensional, multifaceted phenomenon, not easily reduced to a few major dimensions.” Leaders who have cultural savvy are truly skillful, connected, and effective.
Reading, imbibing, and interpreting culture are essential for a leader to navigate the nuances of daily decision making and relationship management. Being in touch with organizational tapestry and patterns ensures intelligent and insightful leadership behavior.
Savvy leadership may not be easily assessed in scientific ways, but it is observable – hence the need for leadership assessment to be a continual process and not just an aberration of talent management.