• Stephen Duns

Are you a Savvy leader?

Last week I had two coaching clients that both had the experience of being the last person standing in the management group after a major organisation restructure. Both are highly competent and have been highly valued in their organisations. Suddenly they feel as though they are on the outer and not at all valued. Both had applied for an executive role in which they had been acting for some time and were now back in their substantive roles, possibly representing a bit of a threat to the people who were appointed. I asked them what had gone wrong. They felt confused, angry, disappointed and even ashamed. They had gone from the in-crowd to the out-crowd. We analysed their network to see where the influences were strong and weak. We talked about how they could again be seen as a Savvy leader.

During the same period, I have been developing a 360° leadership assessment tool and it made me realise how important it is to be a Savvy leader. I have now included it in the leadership capability framework. (I’ll come back to my assessment tool in another blog post.) But how do you know if you are a Savvy leader? The answer is a bit elusive and many people understand the idea but find it difficult to pin down. People say they know it when they see it, and also when they don’t. They use terms like “They are a good operator”, “They have nous” and “They are an influencer”.

I have done some deep research to explore the qualities and practices of a savvy leader. I have summarised the result below into twelve core features of a Savvy leader, in four key categories.

Networks Influence

In order to influence a network first you must understand it. Who are the key players and what are their relationships? Simon Western[i] describes a process for analysing a network as party of the Analytic-Network process. He also talks about the importance of working with networks as part of Eco-Leadership in his seminal text Leadership: A Critical Text[ii].

The process involves naming the key players in the network and the mapping their relationships. The relationships are depicted using symbols that show:

  • their strength – one, two or three lines

  • direction – arrows at the ends

  • fracture – crossing if there has been a relationship break-down

Ed O’Malley[iii] talks about working across factions and the process of Faction Mapping. The process involves placing your initiative in the centre and identifying all the key factions related to the initiative. For each faction there are a series of questions:

  1. Name the Faction

  2. What do they value?

  3. What are their loyalties

  4. What do they have to lose?

  5. How much do they care about my issues?

  6. How much do I need them to make progress on my issue?

I have worked with many people with this framework and I have found that most people have never thought of using processes like these. Sometimes they haven’t even identified the players and then, even if they have, they can’t answer the questions or map the relationships.

Sometimes people claim the process is flawed because they don’t know about the relationships and can’t answer the questions in the Faction Map. This is great data! Of course the obvious response is “Perhaps you can have a conversation with them and ask them.”. If there is a faction that is critical to the success of your challenge and you don’t know about their loyalties, values and potential losses, it might indicate you have some way to go to be a savvy leader.

Commercial acumen

Some years ago I was given a role and one of the direct reports had also applied for the role and was less than thrilled about it going to me. He was older than me and considerably more experienced in some aspects of the role. He made his contempt of the decision to appoint me very clear. We were working on a cost saving exercise, which he was leading, and had to present it to the executive. I asked him to make the presentation. He was resisting giving me any information and it wasn’t until I really pressed him that, the night before the presentation, he provided me with the data and presentation. There was a £500,000 “problem”. Not an insignificant amount, although our overall budget was half a billion. Over that night I trawled through the spreadsheets to see how we might fix this problem. It turned out that he had double-counted a cost and that did indeed fix the problem. The next morning I met him before the presentation. He was pretty dejected. When I pointed out his error he was initially disbelieving. Finally he realised that I was correct and he was able to amend the presentation and we went on to deliver on the cost saving initiatives. That simple event changed our relationship and we became close colleagues. He was able to let go of the resentment of not getting the job and accept my leadership. Had I not had the ability to review the financial information it could have been a very different outcome.

The ability to read financial reports is only a small part of commercial acumen. It’s also necessary to understand what they mean and their implications. In another business I worked with they had an accountant who was extremely accurate. She was also deeply committed to the company and its success. However, there were two problems with the way she worked. One was that, in her need for accuracy, the accounts were often delayed, sometimes for several months. The other problem was that when she presented the accounts she offered no interpretation of the implications for the business. So they had extremely accurate information that was not timely enough or interpreted in a way that allowed them to manage the business. It turned out that the time it took her to achieve the accuracy she needed was also costing a bomb. The accounting arrangements were changed and now the reports are delivered two days after the end of the month with an analysis of the important implications for the business. Sometimes adjustments are necessary the following month but the business has timely access to information that is accurate enough to manage. The business is also saving around $100,000 each year, just on the accounting function and the impact on sustainability and profitability is far greater that the straight cost implications.

Developing scenarios is another aspect of commercial acumen. It can be anything from best/worst/likely scenarios through to more sophisticated scenarios based on clear assumptions. One such approach is Strategic Arena Network Analysis[iv]. This is a process that I have taught in one of the modules of a doctoral program and identifies business issues, crystalizes fuzzy issues and offers scenarios to deal with them. In one example a mining company was able to transform a difficult waste issue into a whole new income stream.


Decisiveness is one of the many leadership paradoxes. On the one hand it’s important to include people in decisions. From the world of complex adaptive systems we know a system only accepts a solution they are part of creating. The need for participatory approaches to decision-making was outlined in my blog “The paradox of Control”. Rushing to a decision leads to the systems archetype “Fixes that Fail” and often create the next set of problems.

On the other hand there are times when a leader needs to be decisive, to be able to make a call. Sometimes people are so wrapped up in the data, the options, that they are paralysed and can’t take action, referred to as Analysis Paralysis[v]. There is some interesting work done on how too many options can make a decision even more difficult. Some of us also use overthinking to guard against failure. When expected to act or make a decision, we use over-analysing as a means to prolong or delay our decision, in fear of making a wrong choice.

People also tend to fall prey to the “Choice Overload:” the more data we have available, the harder it is for us to process it. In fact, once the amount of data reaches a person’s threshold, their brain’s ability to process it starts to decline, up to a point when the person becomes paralyzed to make a decision.

Some ways to overcome analysis paralysis include:

  • Prioritize Different Decisions: Treating all decisions as if they had the same impact is clearly not sensible. Differentiate between decisions that require immediate attention and those that can be acted on later.

  • Determine the Purpose for Making Each Decision: sometimes we just don’t know why we need to make a decision at all. In this case, being clear about the purpose of making a decision will make it easier to pick from available alternatives

  • Break Decisions into Smaller Steps: Scaling the focus down from one big decision to set of smaller but easier-to-make ones can help to make progress, while escaping the pain of trying to make a big and significant decision

  • Forget Perfection: Sometimes picking a “good-enough” decision is the best decision. Every decision will have its downsides.

  • Put On (Healthy) Pressure: If you work better under pressure, enforce a deadline by which you must make the decision. If your team is involved, schedule a final meeting to discuss the issue. Make it clear that this is the final decision point.

A Savvy leader uses their judgement to allow people to participate wherever possible and is also able to make a call when necessary. Judgement is always open to criticism, usually after the event! This is another example of the risk of leadership. (Some people in Australia will remember the “Captain’s Picks” of the Prime Minister Tony Abbott that contributed to his downfall.)

As a general guide, decisions should be made in a participatory way as far as possible. When it’s not possible, for example in a crisis or emergency, then a leader needs to be able to make the call.

Ethics and Integrity

The final piece of Savvy Leadership is ethics and integrity. In another blog I will write about values and ethics but in terms of Savvy Leadership there are three core elements:

  • Knows the right thing to do

  • Follows through on promises

  • Negotiates with a win-win mindset

There’s on old adage that managers do things right and leaders do the right thing. There’s some truth in that. Ethics and leadership are not as obvious as we might think. An example that comes to mind is the experience of the former Prime Minister of Australia in relation to marriage equality. One view is that Malcolm Turnbull showed strong leadership. His vision was clear, or at least his personal position, in that he wanted marriage equality. He was faced with a conservative faction in his party that he needed to influence to get the outcome he wanted. The postal survey was a mechanism that was acceptable. He also had to influence the opposition to accept the process. He succeeded in exerting the necessary influence. The fact that the process caused distress to the LGBTIQ communities was an unfortunate, but inevitable, consequence of the process. Ultimately he achieved his goal and the end justified the means.

The other view is that he succumbed to the conservative faction and caused unnecessary harm to communities because his leadership was too weak. The right thing to do would have been to move a conscience vote in the parliament and use his influence to ensure a successful outcome.

From a consequentialist ethical perspective Turnbull showed good leadership. From a deontological ethical perspective, he showed bad leadership. What was the right thing to do?

A clear and obvious behavioural indication of integrity in a leader is whether they follow through on promises. Perhaps one of the reasons that politicians have lower levels of respect in the community than used car sales people is that they consistently fail to follow through on their promises. At one stage there was even the farcical distinction between “core” promises and other promises. Savvy leaders follow through. At the very least they will explain why something has changed that means they can’t, or they will apologise for not being able to follow through. It’s no rocket science. People are understanding and realise situations change and they respect leaders who own up to their mistakes and take responsibility.

Steven Covey talks about “synergising”[vi], which goes beyond win-win negotiating to agreeing a new and better response. It is not so much about compromise but using the negotiation process in a way which allows a new approach to emerge that better meets all needs. Savvy leaders are not so much interested in beating the competition, but in a longer-term relationship that allows mutuality.


[i] Simon Western (2015) Mentoring and Coaching: A Critical Text, Sage London, UK

[ii] Simon Western (2019) Leadership: A Critical Text, Sage, UK

[iii] Ed O’Malley and Amanda Cebula (2015) Your Leadership Edge: Lead Anytime, Anywhere, Kansas Leadership Centre

[iv] Fayed, R., Duns, S. & Pearce, G. (2011) “Facilitating Competitive Adaptation” chapter in a book based on a presentation at the 1st International Workshop on Complexity and Real-World Applications “Emergence, Complexity and Organization” 2011

[v] Barry Schwarz (2004) The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Harper Perennial

[vi] Steven Covey (1989) Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press

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