Leadership is becoming an ever more prevalent concern for the modern world. And is it any wonder? With the problematic appointment of the current US President Donald Trump, and controversial if widely anticipated appointment of Boris Johnson in the UK, there is quite evidently a crisis in leadership and a crisis of trust and faith in leaders in the West.
The global data is even more revealing, and more frightening. As of 2018, 49 of the world’s nations are ruled by dictatorships, including countries in Europe, the Americas, Asia-Pacific, and North Africa. That is over 25% of the world. And as if that weren’t enough, the early 2019 data suggests the number is growing, not diminishing.
Our world is heading for a period of great disruption, not only brought on my technological revolution, but sociological and psychological revolution. Our cultures are changing rapidly as our world becomes globalised, industrial, faster, and more secular. The problems resulting from this disruption can already be seen: job loss, a psychological health crisis (depression and suicide at an all-time high), and displacement. Add to this a crisis with our climate, and the destruction of the natural world, and we are indeed, to quote Tolkien: ‘standing upon the edge of a knife’. In times of great disruption, we need effective and powerful leadership to carry us through.
Throughout history there are many examples of cultures in crisis that were steered through challenging times by outstanding leadership. Often it is the case that though the leader themselves may be flawed, they are appropriate for the particular problem or situation that faces them; an equal and opposite reaction, if you will. However, waiting around for a saviour is not going to do anyone much good in the now, and often dictators get into power precisely by exploiting our tendency to look for guidance in times of doubt and trial. Of course, a heroic leader may well arrive, but until then, we have to take responsibility for our teams, our colleagues, our businesses, and our communities. If you are a leader, or responsible for people, then here is some advice for steering through this period of change.
There are many pitfalls that leaders can fall into, three in particular that are ‘fatal’ and will cause a complete collapse of trust. Avoid these pitfalls, and you will be well on your way to being a great leader!
Leaders fail to walk the talk –
If employees perceive personal and organisational inconsistency, alarm bells will ring. In the Bible, the sin Jesus disliked most was hypocrisy (“Hypocrite, you cannot love God and money” Matthew 6:24). Now, of course, we are all hypocrites to some extent, it is part of being human, but to habitually exhibit hypocritical traits is a deep flaw that is a sure way to destroy your own credibility. You have to ‘walk the talk’ and model the behaviour you want to see in the world. Another way of looking at this is as a lack of fairness, or double-standards. For example, employees are not allowed to have drinks at their desks, but management are. That is such a simple and seemingly innocuous privilege, but even something so small can cause massive resentment and outright backlash if people perceive they are being treated unfairly or like simply ‘workers’. The ultimate nature of this problem can be boiled down to a single word: selfishness.
Leaders fail to be open or to embrace ambiguity –
If employees perceive a rigid, prescriptive, ‘right’ approach, they will become disheartened. If it is ‘my way or the high way’ all the time, employees will feel it’s pointless talking to their leaders. If processes are in place and employees frequently violate those processes, perhaps the processes are flawed: too laborious, or losing business, or causing some other kind of problem. If the people are telling you one thing, don’t assume they are all wrong and you are right, learn to live with the ambiguity of being wrong or understanding there may be another interpretation of events. It is easier said than done, of course. We tend to cling to our own understanding of the universe and it takes great effort to tap into our empathy, but tap into it we must if we are to truly lead people. Only by listening to others will you gain a full perspective.
Leaders fail to innovate –
If employees perceive a lack of flexibility and a single-minded focus on profit, they will also lose faith. Despite what we’re frequently told, for most people money is not the be all and end all. It’s likely they pursue other motivators in their work life such as: creativity, expertise, recognition, belonging, security, meaning, independence, or authority. Complacency based on successes now, rather than in future, leads to chronic short-termism. Many established businesses have gone bust by succumbing to this peril. They assume that because they have existed for a long time that their processes and products are indestructible and unassailable. However, this is certainly not the case. Fail to innovate and shift with the times, and you will be left behind.
An overall characteristic of these leadership flaws is rigidity: a lack of flexible thinking, a lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability’. Underpinning these is a lack of integrity (walking the talk) and ability to back up what we say with action.
Leadership is not easy. The plethora of books on how to be a good leader, manager, or coach are testimony to this. There are so many different schools of thought on leadership, they would make for their own encyclopedia, and the reality is that thought will always change to align itself with the current time. Leadership today, and the qualities that might be seen as valuable in our society, are certainly going to be different from what the Ancient Greeks valued in their leaders. Having said which, leaders still seem to fall into the same old power traps and political gaming they did two-thousand years ago, so in some ways, there really is nothing new under the sun.
Here’s hoping for positive change, and leaders to steer us towards it.
-Want to find out more about leadership? Why not join James Sale and Jane Thomas, experts in motivation and leadership (read Mapping Motivation for Leadership, Routledge, 2019), for a special leadership workshop in London on September 4th. Only 20 places available and over half already filled, so hurry!