Everywhere you look leadership is in crisis. In the UK our government ministers are blaming their civil servants for policies they introduced Policies such as deporting Windrush migrants whose parents we invited here to work. In the world of business the leaders of our banks are still out on licence and too many of the bosses of the biggest businesses are labelled fat cats due to the size of their pay packets in relation to the performance of their firms. Even the Catholic church has been hit with a leadership crisis in recent years over appalling crimes committed by their own workforce.
Why do we seem to have so many poor leaders and can anything be done about it? To address the last part of that question first the answer is a resounding yes. Leadership is like any other practice. It is a combination of aptitude allied to effort. Everyone can become a better leader. And there is plenty of reading material out there to help leaders to lead. Indeed our own effort The 7 Steps to Frontier Leadership can be found here: http://bookboon.com/en/the-7-steps-to-frontier-leadership-ebook.
But back to the first part of the question above: why do we seem to have so many poor leaders? There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. The UK has historically not fared well when its senior managers have been compared to those of other countries. Indeed poor management is often cited as a major reason for the UK’s longstanding productivity gap (see for example: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/ea021.pdf).
Again historically, Britain’s class system, it has been argued, interferes with harmonious workplace relationships. In today’s less hierarchical and class conscious workplace this argument is harder to stand up. What is far more likely is the fact that change is happening at an ever faster pace. This has driven a form of short termism in our leadership class. Too often leaders believe (and with some justification) that having got up the greasy pole they need to get in and get on before they slide back down. The scrutiny on leaders is much greater too and what they are managing has changed from making things to delivering experiences and satisfying customers who don’t want just in time delivery but ‘right here, right now’ delivery as soon as they have pressed the ‘send’ button on their computers.
Coping with this pace of change while staying true to a long term vision is what we describe as Frontier Leadership. And it is embedded in a truly ethical framework that starts with the notion of ‘good business’ and ‘good work’. Such ethical frameworks ensure that leaders eschew short termism, narcissism, favouritism and cronyism. Too often in our practice we encounter leaders who are driven by narcissistic traits. The’ because I’m wonderful’ style of leadership creates a myopic lens through which to view opportunities and threats. The leader’s leadership becomes toxic. They surround themselves with ‘yes’ people; discourage genuine debate and difference; and miss the change happening all around them to pursue self interest.
It is why we stress the importance of understanding your own behaviours as a leader. And why creating a vision that everyone can buy into (not just your own pet tagline) is so important. This requires a different perspective on your role as leader. The Work Foundation produced a very good checklist on the difference between good and great leaders which we include in our book. The mix of behaviours in great leaders included a desire to include all in the decision-making process. This is now far easier to do with social media; the development of inclusive apps that enable real time responses; videoblogs and the like. Even in the biggest organisations the leader, or leaders, can engage in a meaningful sense with their frontline staff. Talk is work is understood by the best leaders.
So inclusion is one area of leadership to work on; Another is decision-making. How you understand how you make decisions is critical to how good those decisions will be. In a fast changing environment politically, technologically and socially more of what you encounter will be new. Dealing with the new is therefore a key leadership skill.
Finally how you are as a leader needs to be how you are as a person. Inauthenticity can be smelt a mile downwind. You cannot be Gandhi or Winston Churchill (Boris please note). You can only be you. So, as Goffee and Jones say in their book Why Should Anyone be Led by You?, try to be yourself more with style. Nick Isles, co-author of The 7 Steps to Frontier Leadership and associate of The Red Thread Partnership.
The ideas in our book inform the work we do with our clients. At a recent meeting with a senior team from Kerry Foods we asked the team to evaluate themselves using our Frontier Leadership tool. Their response vividly illustrated the challenges they are facing and the areas where, as a leadership team , they need to focus their time and attention. We have also started working with The Met Office to help them address the challenges they are facing in the future and how their behaviours play out on a day to day basis in the way that they make decisions, with plausibility frequently overriding probability.
And these challenges are not unique. We are supporting Siemens in re-structuring their global leadership development programmes to take account of the very issues we mention in the book – the levels of rapid change in the world, the demand for agility and innovation, the fact that our old assumptions about how the world and business works are increasingly less reliable and useful. Adrian Spurrell, co-author of The 7 Steps to Frontier Leadership and Director of The Red Thread Partnership.