To paraphrase the old saying, “Leadership is like the weather – everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.” People seem to accept leadership, good or bad, as a cosmic fate that simply happens. If we benefit, great. If we suffer from inadequate leadership, it is perceived as bad fortune and unavoidable.
I do not accept those premises. Unlike the weather, we can do something about leadership
Leadership development is one of the single most important strategic activities undertaken by business entities throughout the world. To ignore the need for excellent leadership practices is an invitation to catastrophe.
Here is what the science says:
I think there are three main fallacies that directly contribute to poor leadership development:
Fallacy one – “Real” leaders have charisma.
This fallacy can be netted down to a popular belief that charisma is a predictor of success as a leader. On the surface, the argument is emotionally compelling, explaining the popularity of autobiographies of the individuals such as Steve Jobs, Martha Stuart, or Paul Allen. People pore over these biographies in an attempt to glean “secrets” to success. Much is written about leadership, inspiration, and motivation. In fact, every day I see LinkedIn articles and other motivational articles that are intended to inspire me. While their stories are captivating, many people confuse the inspirational emotion with the path to success. People create the impression of inspiration after the fact, and use 20-20 hindsight to suggest that the path was obvious. Hard work, good timing, and economic factors are often ignored as success factors.
Here’s my point of view: Leadership is a learnable skill set, and sound leadership should be a predictor of likely success. Charisma has its place and, if you have it, by all means use it. But these success stories are the unicorn-like exceptions. There are about 18,500 businesses in the US with 500 or more employees (2015). Let’s play this thought experiment and assume that the top 100 companies exemplify the ultra-successful, charismatic stories – or 0.5%. These businesses are the exception. Doesn’t it make more sense to study the common factors of the other 99.5% of businesses and identify the learnable skills that made those companies successful?
Nobody writes a book about charismatic people who fail, unless that person goes to jail: Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Skilling (Enron), Kenneth Lay (Enron), Robert Rubin (Goldman Sachs), Bernard Ebbers (WorldCom). Charisma is less important, in my opinion, than an open, engaged manager. The best managers I ever had listened to me and coached me, valued my work, and made the effort to know me personally and professionally. Finally, if we state the premise that charisma is leadership, we are forced to conclude that we can only use charismatic people (however that is measured) in leadership positions, and leadership development is pointless since it is a personality trait and not a skill. I strongly reject that assumption!
Fallacy two – Confusing a leadership title with actual leadership skills.
The second fallacy is the confusion of conflating the position of being the leader with leadership. If you sit in “the chair,” you are “the leader.” The conflation is that you now have the responsibility of leadership, but you might not have the experience or skills. The good news is that leadership skills can be learned. Insofar as the old argument of nature versus nurture, I believe that leaders can be systemically developed and be successful.
However, there is one caveat. A person in a leadership position has to be willing to commit themselves to the responsibilities of leadership. Those main responsibilities include creating a strong organizational structure and caring for subordinates. Leaders fail when they place their wellbeing above the organization’s wellbeing, or when they when are disengaged (or hands-off) supervisors. The organization may run for a while but, in the long run, there will be high rates of employee turnover and dissatisfaction. High turnover introduces inefficiencies that translate into higher operating costs and lower net margins.
To be fair, some people do not want the responsibilities of being the leader. Perhaps they don’t enjoy the spotlight. Without going into a protracted discussion, I suggest that there is a difference between being a leader and being a manager. The most significant difference is that I believe that managers have a more transactional role in companies and leaders have a more transformative role.
Fallacy three – Leadership style is influenced by your personality.
Daniel Goleman is best known for his research and articles on emotional intelligence (EQ). A person’s EQ is a combination of four fundamental capabilities: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill. In addition, Goleman identifies six leadership styles: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching.
Nowhere does research suggest that people are their leadership style. Instead, their style is driven by a set of capabilities that can be improved.
The authoritative style is considered to give the most positive influence on the organization. Pacesetting and the coercive style are considered to have the most negative influence. Obviously, you should aspire to be authoritative. But you should keep the other styles in your toolbox for those instances when they are needed.
You can imagine that in an emergency or temporary crisis, you may not have the time to exercise all of your social skills to get a group of people moving in the right direction. Coercion may be the immediate necessity. When time or circumstances permit, you should go back and explain the conditions that made your behavior necessary… you return to centerline as an authoritative leader.
The reason I raise the subject is that leaders often do not criticize the actions of other leaders because of the false premise “they act that way because it is their personality.” In other words, they excuse bad behavior because it is accepted as a “tough” leadership style. So, a coercive leader threatens and cajoles his/her subordinates and creates a toxic work environment.
I will not excuse this behavior, but I think I can explain it. People usually act aggressively to other people out of a sense of fear or insecurity. Although unhealthy for the organization, it may be easier, in terms of social skills, to lead people through threats and intimidation. Leaders who are inexperienced or who lack the capabilities that Goleman lists will more easily use aggressive tactics.
I hate bullies. I have seen so many good organizations partially collapse or go completely out of business because of a systemic, toxic work environment polluted by a manager’s so called “style.” To repeat, studies show that 50% of businesses that fail, fail due to leadership issues.
In conclusion, my goal is to create an evidence-based form of leadership that removes the doubt and conjecture of leadership issues. Leadership needs to be less trial and error and more focused on the skills and behaviors that predict success and minimize failure.
Leadership is a solitary endeavor. What I mean by that is that everyone follows their own pathway which is a combination of training (if you are lucky), experience, and the applications of social skills. Everyone makes the rookie mistakes. Everyone makes the intermediate mistakes. Everyone makes strategic mistakes. The keys to these mistakes, like many others, are to ask:
Focus on leadership as a relationship. Motivation and the perception of charisma will follow.
About Ken Wrede