In today’s ambiguous and complex environment, a more nuanced view of leadership is required in order to reward the right behaviors and get the most out of your people.
There are a lot of problems out there. We all know that. But what if there was one thing we could do to improve all of our problems? Well, there is. We can improve leadership. Why is good leadership so important? It’s not just because it improves efficiency. It’s also because it harnesses and applies talent. We have the skills to solve all our problems, but we don’t have the leadership.
How do we know this? Because we keep getting surprised by events. Like the Financial Crisis.. Like Brexit. Like the Pandemic. Leadership’s job is to be ready for stuff like this. There’s no doubt these events are happening; the question is: Why?
The research done by myself and my co-author Pippa Malmgren has resulted in some interesting insights on the topic. In The Leadership Lab, we analyzed the problem. In The Infinite Leader, we developed a new model for dealing with it. In short, the problem is gross imbalance in our leaders and their education.
They are too focused on the short term, the tactical, the quantitative, and the notion that the leader alone has all the solutions. In leadership, we’ve become too focused on the leader and not enough on the ‘ship’ – the team that provides the leadership. Leadership isn’t just about a person; it’s about a culture, and the problem starts at school.
We get credit for right answers, obedience, individual achievements, passing exams, action, attention, deduction, maturity, intellect, organization, and opportunism.
Conversely, we get no credit for empathy, nonconformity, collaboration, teaching others, endurance, imagination, determination, humor, humility, integrity, and loyalty.
We score all children and adults on the things we get credit for. But all the other criteria are ignored. It’s not because they’re not valued. It’s because they can’t be measured. We’ve gotten to the stage where it doesn’t count if it can’t be measured. But we know that not everything that counts can be measured.
This is leading to a type of blindness. You can spot this in the way that people react to any suggestion that leadership might have problems. What you see is an immediate rush to judgment. We call this blindness certainty. Its only provenance is mediocrity.
It often comes with a big, thick dollop of confidence. This is the key marker. It’s explained by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic in his book Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How To Fix It). He correctly identifies the problem as the connection we make between confidence and competence.
It goes back to what we get credit for and what we don’t. There’s only one right answer. It’s at the back of the book and we rank all people on how fast they can get to the right answer. It’s a tragic mistake and it leads to an overreliance on masculine traits in leadership positions.
This leads to binary thinking. You either get it or you don’t. You’re either woke or you’re not. Leadership isn’t like this. It’s about how you deal with ambiguity. So many situations now are interconnected and complex. Above all, modern leadership needs to be possessed of as much imagination as intellect. Imagination to see things coming. To prepare for all eventualities and not just one.
In our travels and interviews, we’re always asked one question that illustrates the problem: “Who is the best example of leadership?” Everyone wants someone to follow, as if they’re the only one who has the right answer. There are many right answers depending on the situation. Our answer often disappoints people.
The best leaders are ordinary people whom you’ve never heard of. The leader of a local hospice trying to get through COVID-19. The single parent family coping with restricted means. The retired volunteer helping kids cross a busy road. You’ll see more leadership qualities in these people than you’ll find in all the Alphazilla entrepreneurs and all the boardrooms of the world.
Chris Lewis is author of The Infinite Leader: Balancing The Demands Of Modern Business Leadership (CLICK HERE to get your copy) and The Leadership Lab (CLICK HERE for your copy). He is CEO and founder of the Global Marketing Agency LEWIS.
Did you enjoy this post? If so, I highly encourage you to take about 30 seconds to become a regular subscriber to this blog. It’s free, fun, practical, and only a few emails a week (I promise!). SIGN UP HERE to get the thoughtLEADERS blog conveniently delivered right to your inbox!