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The way you think about leadership is broken

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12th Feb 2014
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Most people think about leadership in an archaic way. And as much as I don’t mean to point the finger, chances are, you’re one of them.

Frankly, the entire leadership belief system needs upending. Until we - as people in businesses up and down the country, up and down the corporate ladder - make some fundamental changes to those beliefs, the situation won’t get better.

Leaders today are mostly a product of their organisational culture. And the facts remain that organisations 1) are mostly male dominated, 2) value process over people and 3) value experience over attitude and behaviour. These are three fundamental distinctions in large businesses - which is where the majority of people in the UK work. 

The problem is, and you’ll recognise this, that it is socially unacceptable to promote or hire someone because of their behaviour or attitude, yet promotion on experience or length of tenure is seen to be deserved.

For us to change that horribly old-fashioned thinking, we need to look at everything very differently.

Bear with me while I go off on a tangent about online dating. It will make sense, I promise. 

Online dating is a great parallel to the challenges these large businesses currently face. Seen as unconventional a few years ago, believers in the system made their own success and carried on without buckling to social acceptance. Those trailblazers are now seen as completely ‘normal’. 

In business, it’s the same thing. To get results, we need to do things a different way.

Find the (relevant!) data

Lots of HR teams and businesses talk about data. Frankly most of the time no one knows what they’re supposed to do with it. It starts with what you’re trying to define – what does a great leader for my business look like?

Perhaps the biggest message in data is that there is nothing to suggest that great leaders become great leaders because of their experience. Experience is the only data point most large organisations use when making people decisions, unfortunately it’s the least relevant one (our research shows that experience is the least reliable predictor of success).

Indeed, the majority of businesses are backwards in the sense that they don’t promote their people based on true leadership potential. Defining ‘true leadership potential’ is all about the data points behind someone’s intellect, values, motivation and behaviour. Predicting an individual’s future performance is based on measuring these and matching them to What Good Looks Like in a particular business, including where the business is in its lifecycle.

Indeed, the lifecycle is critical to defining the type of leader needed.  For instance, a leader needed in a business transformation looks completely different to a leader that sustains and maintains an organisation. So what a great leader looks like now, won’t be the same in five years. Or what makes a good leader in one company, is unlikely to make a good leader in another. Which goes to highlight why experience doesn’t cut the mustard when it comes to success and results. We need to use data to predict high performance, so we get high performing leaders. 

The problem most of us find working with data is that it’s harder work, it takes longer and always, bubbling behind it is the social unacceptability of adopting and trailblazing new beliefs and processes. 

How, for instance, will you handle a situation where data tells you to promote or hire someone who has exactly the right motivation and attitude, but little experience? That is no doubt a move that will be questioned by many around you.

The leadership personalities that work, and don’t work

Right now, businesses mostly miss the fundamentals when hiring leaders. For instance there are combinations of personality that work and some that don’t. Studies show the correlation between performance and certain personality scales, but very few businesses use these rigorously.

From profiling thousands of leaders and reading studies years over, we know that no matter what organisation you’re in, more often than not, you’ll have a far more successful leader if they can build relationships, interacting well with others, as well as be an authority, making independent decisions. On the flip side, these personality traits completely derail in leadership if you have someone who is dominant in one of these traits, and weak in the other. 

Those simplistic elements don’t change, but where your business is in its lifecycle or the type of business you operate can have a profound effect.  For example, for some organisations, high detail is critical. Best practice is only best practice for your business. It’s not what Joe Bloggs Limited down the road is doing. 

Most of us, by nature, are followers of trends, which actually brings us right back to leadership and why getting it right is so important.  What is needed is research time - and a dash of bravery.

At the end of the day, organisations have always tended to funnel people through a certain route; they work with a frame of old beliefs about what a leader looks like.  Until that frame is changed - using data to predict high performance in individual businesses - nothing is going to improve.  

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Perry Timms
By Perry Timms
13th Feb 2014 13:21

Thanks Tom for reminding us of what we believe is right but that doesn't always appear to be done in that way.  Leadership is still in need of attention; reinvention and in many cases, CPR.  We still see successful enterprise and human endeavours fuelled by good leadership and failures almost certainly down to poor leadership.  Not just but a key part of the creation of circumstances that lead to failure.

I wanted to add courage more than a dash of bravery in there - and not in a "go in and rescue an injured comrade under fire" courage that Sinek talks of about Navy Seals and Military leadership qualities, no more the "hold your nerve about what you think is right as a leader" type courage.

I'll use Alpha Male type behaviours as an example over what you see more of in the new military way (and featured in Sinek's book Leaders Eat Last).  When the dominant, hierarchical force appears to be someone who is a teeth-gnashing, politically savvy game player, others will adjust their behaviour to succeed based on that.

It's like "this is what it takes to lead around here".  I am not even sure it's that hooked on data misinterpretation.

It's highly unlikely ANYONE has data on courage.  There may well be performance data that supports a team where the leader is courageous enough to do it their way.  I underscore that.

As courage comes into play NOT through the data lens but more so in NOT replicating/modelling the "toxic" sorts of behaviour and then courage to lead your way.  

I know from being one, from coaching leaders and being in a learning environment with many leaders of different experience levels and approaches, the imprint by their leader is "lead like me and all will be well".  Often meant positively and sometimes egotistically.  I know best.  It takes some courage to stand up to an autocratic pushy leader when proposing an alternative take.

It also takes courage as some people who you LEAD have become conditioned to the old way of being told what to do.  They are comforted by being led and when given freedom to become autonomous and have responsibility, they actively reject that and label you as a lame or lightweight leader.

It is therefore a little over simplified to say "we know yet we don't do". when it's about a collective "know" and "not do/allow" that is at play for much of this.  We are enacting performances based on one style and not our own interpretation; plus we are becoming tribute bands to poorly executed but nonetheless hierarchically successful acts

So for me it's a little less of "let's keep educating leaders in this new frame of reference" and focus more on "how you work your courage quotient up to be the leader YOU KNOW is right and not what everyone else THINKS it should be".

So the way a lot of us look at leadership development is broken - I agree with you.  

I think as well as narrowing the knowing / doing gap you rightly call out, I think we need to work on the fuel additive that does that and for me that starts with knowing yourself and then is mostly about being courageous enough to stand by what you believe is right for you, at that time, leading in the situation you find yourself in.

Thanks for provoking my thoughts on this one.  I have often gotten SO jaded about leadership tales of woe that instead I have focused on the power in the many and in "leaderless" type structures.  

You have reminded me that we have a lot to do here still and probably always will and should keep going on this front.

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By pam kennett
13th Feb 2014 15:19

I'm going to come from a different perspective completely. Despite the fact I've been building leadership models for more than 20 years (maybe because of it), I have come to the conclusion that there is no one defined leadership model that is predominant. Along with Hogan (The Dark Side of Leadership etc) I believe it is what leadership is needed in which circumstances. Whilst I agree that we could and should use data to inform our decisions about leadership potential, most diagnostics around don't enable us to ask questions within a contextual background. We're often asked, does the person communicate with passion? Yes/No. And I would question as to whether we need passion for everything. In fact, to communicate with passion all the time would probably dilute its impact. Similary, we need to see how the individual acts with his/her back up against the wall - with integrity and consistency, or in merely following the party line.

So context is critical.

Perry's comments reflect the current thinking about the importance of being the type of leader followers want - authentic, brave and full of integrity. I disagree with Perry when he says there probably isn't data on courage. I've worked with models that have integrity, moral judgement and so on. So why not bravery and courage - it's a form of self confidence isn't it.

I do think how people want to be managed will determine the type of leader that emerges in the future. In fact, Google asked its employees to build a picture of the model of the leader they want - a leadership model but still, how fantastic to be asked to define how you want to be led. And being Google I'm sure they'll be measuring it. I

 

 

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By Katie Porkess
14th Feb 2014 09:25

I really enjoyed reading this article.

As an organisational psychologist specialising in the behaviour of leaders working under excessive pressure and stress, I strongly support Tom Quale's comments.

Leadership is highly contextual. A leadership style and approach in one situation will not work in another, be that different organisations, departments, or teams, or indeed in the same unit at different times.

This is because leaders are intrinsic to the culture of the team they are leading - aware of its norms and values and acting on them. Unless the team members perceive a leader to be representative of themselves, they will not truly support the leader, and the relationship between the leader and the followers will be well and truly 'broken'.

The consequence of this is that leaders in such situations, and their followers, do not achieve what they set out to and performance is greatly hindered - and the leader is likely to be labelled a 'failure'.

In short, leadership is about culture, context and relationship.

 

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Jamie Lawrence, HRZone
By Jamie Lawrence
14th Feb 2014 10:27

This point from Perry stood out for me: "lead like me and all will be well".  Often meant positively and sometimes egotistically.

I think this is one of the unfortunate features of modern organisations and it stems from a lack of awareness on the part of leaders in how to handle people that are not like them. How many times have you heard managers say, "I just don't know how to manage her."

One of the key things I've learnt is that there are many, many, many ways to succeed. There are many ways to sell well. Many ways to build relationships. Having diversity in your people is a great thing, but culture often cannbalises individuality and a 'strong' leader that leaves their mark on others often speeds up this process by 'inspiring' others to take a worldview and a course of action that mirrors their own.

We need leaders that encourage individuality of approach.

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