What is required for leadership in today’s organizations?

Leadership is a topic that we just can’t seem to get enough of. Amazon.com lists about 2000 books published in English on the subject of leadership during 2011 alone. In January, Bersin at Deloitte published its Leadership Development Factbook and valued the leadership  development industry at 14 billion USD. The International Journal of Leadership Studies puts the mid-1980s expenditures on leadership development at 1.5 billion USD which puts growth above 25 percent for the last 30 years. That is phenomenal growth but how is this money spent?

Most leadership training subscribes to a “list” approach. What this means is the training provider typically has a list of attributes (usually refered to as leadership skills and behaviors) that it takes to be a good leader. Trainees in this leadership program are supposed to learn the list and, it is presumed, once they have mastered the attributes on the list they have graduated into leadership.

At least one problem I see with this approach is that these “lists” are most often derived from studying a sample of successful leaders from whom the best attributes are taken (of course, they don’t study the weaknesses of these leaders) and combined into a model of the ideal leader.

We then put trainees in a classroom situation where they are supposed to internalize the attributes of the ideal leader and, once so enlightened, take them back and apply them at work. In fact, the person these programs are training you to become doesn’t exist and can’t exist.

Still, companies have been delivering this type of training for decades and arguably getting better at it. In addition, every year the “list” is improved with stronger leadership attributes. Yet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau the rate of business failures remained relatively unchanged for 20 years prior to the financial meltdown of 2008 when failures suddenly skyrocketed. How is it possible with all the collective knowledge on leadership and the tremendous growth in leadership training that the instances of business failures have not decreased? Why have we seen the near failure of some of the largest companies in the world where arguably the most leadership training takes place. How can this be? What is going on?

I see two possibilities: (1) We haven’t learned or can’t learn the “lists” we’ve been taught about leadership or (2) what we’ve been taught about leadership just isn’t working.

The “list” model of leadership predominately focuses on teaching a person in a leadership role the necessary skills, traits, personality, and knowledge to create a vision and move a group of people to fulfilling the vision with commitment, loyalty, and great passion. This, I propose, is the predominate model because it captures our imagination. Just think about it; the striving individual who arrives with a grand vision, takes charge and leads everyone to great success. It is a story that excites us and in which, I believe, most of us would like to play the lead role.

However, these individuals are very rare and, based on the evidence of the last few decades, this doesn’t seem to be a leadership model that can be easily learned.

I suggest we take a fresh look at leadership by examining the outcomes we expect when we put a leader in charge of an organization and determine what needs to happen to us get there. If you are a business owner and are going to hire a person to lead your company, what would you want this person to create? I think most would agree that the result should be a company that out performs others in its market and industry. This I call a high performing organization.  What is needed for an organization to be high performing?

The obvious answer might seem to be high performing people, i.e. people who outperform their peers. But is it reasonable to expect to have high performing people in all the positions in your company? Not likely, and even if this were possible would that be enough to make your organization deliver results that out-pace the competition? No. What brings high performance to a company is not a group of strong individuals but when mostly average performers are able to collaborate and work together so they collectively achieve high performance. That is what is meant by synergy and it is this collective achievement that is missing in our businesses and societal organizations today.

Over the last decades, we have individualized the process of leadership when, in fact, businesses and organizations are social institutions in which people must learn to work together.

From this perspective, I propose that the entire paradigm of leadership has to shift. Rather than training individuals how to be extraordinary at leading teams and organizations, we need to be training teams of average performers how to work together and lead themselves to outstanding results. What does this look like?

  1. As a precondition to organizational high performance we need to train people together in groups and teams on how to work together. This requires that they first of all learn to trust and respect one another. Are you likely to enthusiastically collaborate with someone you don’t trust or respect? Probably not.
  2. We need to establish robust processes of teamwork and decision-making so diverse people can come together and solve complex problems. Through these first two steps we develop the capability to innovate.
  3. We need to initiate structures and correctly align them with authority and rewards so this collaboration, problem solving, and innovation is taking place through all levels of our organizations.

The “list” leadership model is a relic of the early past century when we had uneducated factory workers who had to be led by a more educated, elite group of managers. Today workers are more educated and better equipped through technology to make decisions more effectively than ever before. We need organizations that are designed to make the best use of today’s high value workforce by promoting collaboration of individuals so they collectively lead their organizations to high performance.

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