Leadership – Critical, but let’s check for some irony! #2

Leadership difficulties have played a role in nearly, if not all, organisational dysfunction I have encountered. Any person involved in leadership should be casting a questioning and philosophical eye over the practice and topic of leadership. Few (I’m being generous) have a good word for the leadership of their organisations. While this hyper criticalness is partly a reflection of the dominant worldview, their comments have merit.  What follows does not attempt to replicate what has been already written on the topic but captures some of my thoughts from conversations on the topic. There seems an increasing number of people who are somewhat cynical about leadership and leadership training however in the end it is still best to engage with the topic and continue to learn. Ignoring or sabotaging the learning will lead to no good! Recent events such as including terminations by email or Text message require a different discussion again – courage and respect.

Leadership without the optional bits: The ‘corporate’ worldview loves leadership, a complex and much discussed social process and more fun to talk about than management or workplace democracy. It is often associated with the military, sport (e.g. football and cricket teams), politics and business. The archetypal image is of the great, powerful and heroic (male*) leader and it fuels the hubris evident in many of our corporate and political elites. Training programs talk of vision, strategy, participation, authority, consultation, teamwork, change management, communication, ethics, persistence, toughness and more. Only vision, toughness and authority fit with the archetype of the hero. Everything else is frequently placed under the heading of ‘optional techniques’ for getting what you want. Just add Public Relations ( See below). Unfortunately that is not leadership in the 21st century.

Women In Leadership*: In general the Australian population is comfortable enough for women to hold positions of power such that it can and does happen – though not as often as it could or should. Some industry sectors are way ahead of others and workplace structural issues are still evident for both men and women. At the same time there is a significant portion of people – particularly but not exclusively men – that still have difficulty – if not with the idea of women in power then with how in practice to deal with this emerging reality. Prime Minister Julia Gillard quickly attracted unprecedented sexist attacks from people who should have known better. The corporate environment has never been friendly to the personal or the family and that will continue a problem for gender equality.
Leadership Training is Not Always Effective: One does not need to go far to find somebody lamenting the dearth of leadership, which is strange given that leadership training or at least talk about it has been popular in corporate Australia for more than 25 years. There is little doubt that the training has helped some however not enough to stop the widespread complaints. Is it possible that something is missing from the training? Well, yes! Before anything else inconsistent investment, programs becoming too short to create personal change, small to medium size business often can’t afford programs, a corporate culture inconsistent with the leadership training, increasingly cynical attitudes of participants, lack of mentoring and support, program facilitators that can’t move outside the program material, programs becoming elitist within organisations …. there’s a lot of things that can undermine effectiveness. But do it anyway!!

Political Leadership Has Deteriorated: Australian politics has increasingly become about ‘leaders’ not ‘leadership’ making image and marketing increasingly critical but also making blame easier and the positions more tenuous. Being effective at politics and the use of power is part of political leadership however there is more than that required. A Law degree or similar and some practice in party politics provides a suitable training. Shameless lying and misrepresentation is reasonably considered the norm in politics.  Put another way, the lie becomes a political instrument, the ‘truth’ optional. (Carl Jung makes this point quoting Ignatius Loyola “the end sanctifies the means”.)  The same is true of our corporate elites though they may take more care as they could be held liable  – see Public Relations. However, the terms of legal power are clearly tipped in favour of the corporate (state or private) over the individual even if only by having the financial resources to access the law.

The Leadership Press Want To Sell Books: The business community loves books and narratives of success and ‘leadership’. They are inspiring and instructive. The business community, facilitated by the business press, goes through periods of finding heroes to adore. Some degree of self delusion and a lack of critical input and commentary is important to these books. The books should be read  … as un-peer reviewed case studies. There are certainly ideas but there is also a lot of story telling. Selling books is a business.

Executives Aren’t Entrepreneurs: Senior executive employees of public companies are encouraged to believe that they are entrepreneurial leaders. This can even be used to rationalise  excessive multimillion dollar compensation packages. The reality is, if all the packages were halved tomorrow these executives would still turn up to work. Why? Because they are employees and courtiers, not entrepreneurs, nor royalty. They work for these companies to earn an income, gain status and avoid the risk and vagaries of the marketplace. It is best for them and society if they perform well in the short term and set the business up in a robust fashion.

Once they have the millions in their pockets they could start or purchase businesses however these would not be garage startups. More likely they will seek Directorships and will be offered posts. It is not in the interests of the executive class elites to halve their salaries nor acknowledge their employee status. This is not to say that there are not good and capable people in ‘leadership’ roles – there are. And if they were not there, then somebody else would emerge to do their roles; sometimes worse and sometimes better. It is commonly said, ‘the graveyard is full of indispensable people’. Leadership is critically important to our organisations, though unfortunately hubris and narcissism is an all too common outcome that distorts the role. Further, the reality is that the majority of executives are not visionary, but rather they are imitators, albeit smart ones. This is not necessarily a bad thing nor should it be a surprise considering the conservative choices many have made to achieve their roles. Imitation often plays a critical role in innovation. Imitation can reduce risk and executives have others to ‘consult’ about what to expect. Also refer to ‘emergent strategy’ (when it appears).

I am reminded of a discussion with a senior food scientist who had worked for both the Mars Corporation and Pepsi. Both are very large. Mars is privately owned while Pepsi is a public corporation. When a Mars family member visited Australia they travelled alone, hired cars, checked themselves into hotels, drove themselves and met directly with staff etcetera. When the employee executives of Pepsi arrived, they came with a large entourage, where chauffeured in limousines, went to prepared slideshows and discussion groups with managers and were generally treated as special and different. Royalty comes to mind. This treatment was planned. One case doesn’t make an argument. But it can illustrate a point. 

Leadership Is Elitist – Just Don’t Be It!: A lot of leadership training is about the person and focuses on differentiating the person from the crowd and that that crowd will be led by that person or persons. Australians seem uncomfortable with ‘Leaders’ being seen or recognised as members of a privileged or elite group – even if only temporarily. As such there is often an emphasis having leaders appear as ordinary people with regular backgrounds and a focus on the persons ‘human’ qualities. ‘She’ or ‘He’ came from a struggling family, endured bullying, worked there way up and is really down to earth or they are pretty straight with people. These narratives and qualities are attractive and do make the leadership seem as if they are accessible  and less egotistical even when they are not. Even Trump presents as the ‘Blue Collar’ Billionaire.

New Leaders Don’t Always Get A Chance: Strong cultures in teams and strong informal leaders influence leadership outcomes. Special treatment (and negative treatment) can work in both directions – Leaders (Elites) expecting special treatment and non-elites offering it. Non-elites can significantly shape the behaviour of their unwary leaders in toxic ways. Often with perverse outcomes. Consider the active refusal of staff to communicate, share problems and solutions (passive aggressive behaviour). How often has a leader turned up to a meeting, asked a question and got little or no response? It happens a lot and teams are quite prepared to train new managers have to be bad leaders. There’s more than on movie based on the idea of a leader having to prove themselves and then suddenly being taken seriously. It doesn’t always work out that way. Refer to Happily Unhappy at Work.

Public Relations Is Not Leadership: I will finish with one final observation. Leadership and change management is a lot more than Public Relations(PR).Unfortunately I have seen consultation and other leadership and change processes replaced with PR masquerading as the former. Consulting with staff and the general public only to ignore the results is alienating and people grow to resent their wasted effort. Eventually substance triumphs over image but it can take time. State Dictators know they have to control the message or risk losing power. See Public Relations.

Note: Political leadership in Australia is currently dominated by an increasingly conservative 4 to 5th Worldview (particularly the right wing of the Liberal Party) and will fail to meet modern challenges and complexities. Progressive business leadership is struggling with a move from the 5th to 6th Worldview while some are increasingly aware of problems requiring a 7th worldview. Business will quickly find the current political environment is not progressive enough even in the usual economic discussions of taxes, productivity and regulation. I will soon post descriptions of the memes that make up each Worldview.

Peter O’Reilly ©

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