One of my roles in supporting leaders is as an executive coach. And as you could imagine, I hear about leadership challenges almost on a daily basis – and it’s often not a very inspiring story. For example I was recently coaching an executive who was describing the difficulties he was experiencing in holding people accountable and getting them to focus on what matters to the business. He was frustrated by their lack of ‘get up and go’ and apparent lack of ‘skin in the game’.
The kind of leadership we have will change, not because of the person in a position, but because of a new reality that will bring about new conditions for power-sharing in the organization and in the workplace.
We know for example that no one person, not even the CEO can make large scale change happen without engaging large parts, if not all, of the organisation. It is incredibly naive to think that positional authority is sufficient to engage people and get the best from them. In reality, leadership requires a broad skill set outside the traditional boundaries of formal authority and management.
For example, are we treated according to what we know and what we want to contribute or are we merely treated according to our position? Today organizations are managed by hierarchic structures, meaning that the people occupying superior positions manage people in subordinate positions. In other words, employees are treated according to their positions and not according to their competence, which makes absences caused by structural – and not personal – factors. It is the power structure of the organization that produces incompetence and ineffectiveness.
Why do we continue to behave in this way and reinforce tradtional power structures? If we take a closer look at the evolutionary traits of the hierarchic structure, the superior positions prove increasingly valuable in terms of wages, superannuation, benefits and other privileged arrangements. The leaders have a lot to gain by protecting and defending their positions against internal and external threats and they have a lot to lose if they don’t. It is also how we were managed, and how our manager’s managed them and so on.
Let me be clear about one thing – I am not advocating a ‘free-for-all-do-what-you-want’ style of management. What I am advocating however is a move to a values-based culture where there are high levels of respect and trust, where communication is real and transparent, and where people’s talents and strengths are leveraged rather than stifled. In fact, the real sign that an organisation is moving beyond the realm of command and control management is where leaders can successfully do one thing – generate leadership right through the organisation. It is only then that major change, exquisite strategy execution and highly engaged people is a possibility.
In fact, even on the battlefield there is lots of evidence to show it’s not always the best leadership approach (the German army was renowned for giving it’s soldiers authority on the front line), so why do we continue to adhere to it in organisations? Who knows – if we can move to a different paradigm in organisations, the flashing lights and other broken systems and processes might just get the attention they deserve.