THE LEADERSHIP GAP

“It is the men behind who make the man ahead.”
American editor and author, Merle Crowell (1906-1959)

I have recently been invited to give the opening keynote at the 2014 HRM Expo in Cologne, Germany this coming October, my given topic being “Are we ready for workplace democracy ?” The fact that I wrote a blog piece on this topic last March (see “Are we ready for workplace democracy ?” posted March 17, 2014) may actually be the main reason that I received this invitation.

By Fallschirmjäger; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons

Cologne at dusk; by Fallschirmjäger; CC BY-SA 3.0 license; via Wikimedia Commons


In this post, I reasoned that notwithstanding the changing face of management towards greater freedoms in the workplace, people still needed some direction and structure in their work lives, whilst accepting that this is significantly less than what was needed in my, and previous, generations. I also cited my reasons for rejecting the idea that business leaders should be democratically elected by their staff, as I had seen in one case, as being a leap too far. I felt that I would still rather have them appointed by the board and senior management.

I still believe this, but I do have some serious concerns about the way we generally seem to select, develop and promote our business leaders, as despite the changes we are seeing in our new mobile, connected world, these practices seem to have changed little over the last 50 years, including some Business Schools where the business case studies used can be significantly older than the students (see “Business leadership isn’t changing quickly enough” posted October 10, 2011). I have also been critical of the fact that senior management in larger companies tends to be suspicious and wary of promoting creative, imaginative people who are prepared to take some calculated risks and drive needed changes in an ever-changing world, in favour of promotion of those who are more inclined to protect the status quo. Senior executives do love to promote in their own image.

Author: Tatu Monk; CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0; via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Tatu Monk; CC BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0; via Wikimedia Commons


One of the other problems that I see is that there appears to be a growing belief amongst many that leadership and management can be easily taught, and taught quickly, and to foster this belief we have seen a growing availability of short, sharp, quick-hit training courses that seem to cater to the same clientele who see books like “The one minute manager” and “Who moved my cheese” as being great tomes on business life. This “leadership development” industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar business, in the main turning out managers who believe they know all that they need to know to successfully lead a team. I have, for example, interviewed many young MBA graduates who believe that they are ready for a management role immediately upon graduation, whereas I have always seen an MBA as being equivalent to buying a fishing license, which gives you the right to sit at the river, but which still means that you have to learn how to actually catch fish.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons


I have no doubt that some elements of management and leadership can be taught, but the reality is that becoming a capable leader and manager is a journey of discovery and experimentation over one’s lifetime, rather than being a destination that one reaches after reading a few “pamphlets” and some attendance on a few “quickie-how-to” courses. I recently had a newly appointed manager ask me whether I could give him an hour of my time to tell him about the key elements of management so that he could become effective quickly. Up until his sudden appointment into a management role, no-one had thought about how to prepare him properly for the move from an individual contributor to having responsibility for a team of people. I was delighted that he was keen to understand the role of a manager, but somewhat dismayed that he felt that “an hour of my time” was enough to get him started.

Another problem that we face today is that, lacking other empirical measures of management excellence, the main way that we tend to identify and recognise outstanding leadership in the business world is based almost entirely on the financial results, which often disregards at what expense these are achieved. A good example of this tendency, were the accolades heaped on the management of Enron right up until the final moments of its sudden and spectacular death. As a result of this focus on “show me the money”, the biggest fee earners and highest revenue generating sales people are the ones who most commonly get promoted, in the belief that they will somehow automatically understand how to pass these skills on to others, and the fact that they could sell product and services was an indicator of leadership qualities.

The issue is that when it comes to selecting future leaders, just looking at their potential leadership skills, based on past performance, is not enough, as it is critical that one also evaluates their “followership” skills.

The critical question is “Would anyone follow them if they didn’t have the title ?”

This situation was well brought home to me during my own career when a colleague of mine, who had been a successful regional President, was appointed to the role of Global CEO. Despite his previous successes, and despite having been able to build a small band of devoted acolytes, he was not able to build broad “followership” in the company. After only about a year in the role, there was a general uprising amongst staff that forced the board to rethink his appointment and resulted in his subsequent removal.

To me, this was at least a real example of workplace democracy at work.

By SchuminWeb; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons

By SchuminWeb; CC BY-SA 2.5 license; via Wikimedia Commons


This taught me not only the power of mob rule, but also the fact that a true leader cannot be defined by his own leadership persona, but is more defined by the number of, and the passion and commitment from, his followers.

As said by Harvard University Professor Barbara Kellerman “Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers.”

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13 Responses to THE LEADERSHIP GAP

  1. excellent post. Leadership must be learned and earned, rather than handed to someone who presents best or gives best results. Companies need the best leaders rather than the best self-promoters.

    • leshayman says:

      Erik, sadly most managers promote “in their own image”, working on the belief that if it looks, smells and feels like they do, then it must be good. That is why little has changed in larger companies, and why we need start-ups to drive creativity and disruptive business practices. Les

  2. denpobedy says:

    Les,
    your post bring a spotlight on a phenomena I encountered, that of former military officers that transition into the areas of commercial activity. There is no doubt that they have a lifetime of leadership experience, but a leadership where followers were acting under orders! Would their subordinates necessarily follow orders if not obligated by their military contracts, and are the lessons of leadership gained in a non-democratic environment transferable? There is no disrespect intended for the service rendered by veterans of wars, but it seems to me that on a deeper consideration the answer is no.

    • leshayman says:

      Denpobedy, I agree totally.
      I have a number of friends who came out of the military at the highest levels, and struggled with their move into private sector management roles, with basic things like disagreement and questioning, when used to blind obedience.
      I also agree that learning entities are driven to change only when pushed, rather than driving change.
      Les

      • denpobedy says:

        So I have a problem in trying to introduce a strategic product to a US multinational in the Defense sector. I’m on the one hand dealing with ex-military and on the other engineers that work for the ex-military. The top of the executive chain-of-command is staffed by these two types with a smattering of MBA types that came from the outside for their reputation. Introducing strategic change worth tens of billions, an operating paradigm change for the DOD and two disruptive innovations is difficult enough. Than I find my POC is lying and not following company procedure but just pumping me for information. And this with a company that has an Ethics VP! All this time the people in the military say “thanks no thanks” while pursuing costly dead-end and inappropriate solutions. Is this what corporate public service and commerce America has become? It really sounds a lot like Soviet Union in English.

      • leshayman says:

        Denpobedy, you should at least take solace that this situation you describe is exactly the reason that they have need of someone like you. The business community globally is generally manned by quite ordinary people, with a smattering of skilled people who hold it all together. Les

      • denpobedy says:

        Do you have any suggestions on how to proceed? I don’t particularly want to confront my POC. An acquaintance suggested to just ‘go higher’, and another to ‘go wider’. I’m considering approaching corporate VP Strategy, and seeking out someone in the DoD a ‘star’ down from Chiefs of Staff that is authorised to listen (sounds funny to say it).

  3. Pingback: Top Leadership Development Blog Posts this Week: 7/3/14

  4. Adriana says:

    Dear Les, ever since I finished to read your blog in February this year, I’ve found myself very frustrated after finishing to read your weakly posts… It felt like when you’re really hungry and someone takes you to a nice French restaurant and offers you a beautiful but tiny piece of art on an incredible big plate, which only tempts you for more when you already finished…

    Today I’m finally satisfied. Your last 3 posts were extremely insightful. Looking forward to the desert tomorrow morning. Thank you! Adriana

    • leshayman says:

      Adriana, I hope that you are not disappointed tomorow … my post on 14/7 is a bit “tongue in cheek” rather than totally serious 🙂 Les

      • Adriana says:

        “Tongue in cheek” is good for desert. Looking forward to my next “Les” meal in August 🙂 It was easy to resist and not read your posts during my exam period. I hope I can resist as well now when I’m free. Waiting definitely pays off… Have a fantastic summer! Adriana

      • Adriana says:

        Oh My God, now I’ve read again my reply and it sounds very much like Hannibal Lecter. 😦 And it seems that I have no possibility to delete it. Sorry for the lack of inspiration, my intentions are honorable… 🙂

      • leshayman says:

        Adriana, I never thought otherwise. 🙂
        Les

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