Whatever Happened To Leadership?

November 26, 2009
I’m close to finishing the chapter on Leadership in my book “Plans to Reality” and the anecdotal evidence that I have gathered indicates to me that the standard of leadership, despite all that has been written and spoken on the subject, has actually declined.

I put it down to four factors.

  1. The first of these is the environment in which we live. The highly competitive environment that most organisations operate in, both externally and internally, is not conducive to the practice of leadership. Leadership, by definition, is a selfless exercise and the corporate world has become less selfless. Too many managers seem preoccupied with their own aggrandisement to devout much time to the interests and welfare of the people who respond to them. Of course, this does not make rational sense because one would think that time and effort devoted to leadership would pay off for the manager. He or she would be even more successful in serving his or her personal interests and ambitions.However, this line of logic fails to acknowledge the other three realities of modern corporate life.
  2. Firstly, most organisations operate for the short term – they want results NOW. They pay scant attention to the human cost in their achievement.
  3. Secondly, people’s tenures in the same managerial positions or the same organisations are so much shorter these days. Most are never around to reap what they sow. Based on evidence of short term results, they are promptly promoted or leave for pastures new. “Congratulations on reducing the headcount in your department by 5% – we would like you to replicate this – only by 10% – in that company that we have just bought”. Never mind that those with the greatest experience took the early retirement package and the most competent manager saw the writing on the wall and left to take up a position with your major rival.
  4. Lastly, people lack time and leadership – good leadership – takes up time. Faced with the choice between finishing that report or explaining to a staff member the reasons for a change in strategy, there are all too few who would opt for the latter. Finish the report on time and there’s the prospect of a few more brownie points being chalked up against your name. In contrast spending time keeping your staff “in on things”, listening to their views, involving them in decision-making – this is an investment in the future with no specific pay-back period. It does not attract the attention of the boss and wins no kudos in the short-term.

Despite the attraction of short term gains, the long term damage to an organisation can be very serious. For one, it rewards “technical” management skills more so than a person’s ability to lead people and instil qualities of leadership in others. It sets a precedent for the type of behaviour that the organisation encourages.

Plans to Reality - Whatever Happened To Leadership?When I hear of yet another example of incompetent leadership, I am always reminded of the story of advertising guru, David Olgilvy. He used to give every newly promoted office manager a Russian matryoshka doll. Inside the smallest one, the manager would find the following message. “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants”.

It takes courage and leadership to hire people who are bigger than we are.


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