Contradictions in Corporate Leadership Practices – guest post by Tojo Eapen
Umpteen numbers of articles continue to be written about leadership and leadership development. In recent years, there has been noticeable focus on concepts like emotional intelligence, authenticity, mindfulness, flat, network-centric organizations and virtuous teaching cycles. Even some of the most famous corporate leaders like Jack Welch and Tim Brown recently emphasized that leadership success is all about growing others.1,2
Dr. Noel Tichy from the University of Michigan wrote in ‘The Cycle of Leadership’ that if you look at the world’s best leaders, you’ll see that they are also the world’s best teachers, because teaching is at the heart of leadership.3 Recent findings in cognitive neuroscience specify that much of our motivation driving social behavior is governed by an overarching organizing principle of minimizing threat and maximizing reward. The SCARF model from David Rock summarized a framework that captured the common factors that can activate a reward or threat response in social situations.4 Management gurus like Gary Hamel have been instigating a management revolution to transform traditional leadership and management practices, and traditional organization structures that demand too much of too few and not enough of everyone else.5 Even in traditional cultures like China, changing leadership skills and development are being actively thought about and redesigned to meet the challenges of a constantly changing world.6
There are multiple exhortations to rethink and redefine the work of leadership. The ‘Hackathon’ effort from the Management Innovation Exchange’s (MIX) is a great example of collaborative approach.7
In spite of all of these advances and advanced thinking, from various conversations with friends and colleagues around the world, it seems like there is still a major gap in quality of leaders and practical leadership practices in organizations. Studies seem to support that impression. Fewer than one in five people trust business or government leaders to tell the truth when confronted with a difficult issue, according to a yearly “trust barometer” survey by the giant public relations firm Edelman. Gallup found that over a twelve-year period between 2000 and 2012, the percentage of engaged employees in the workforce shifted between 26% and 30%.8
Leadership is indeed a complex responsibility but something fundamentally seems to be out of place.
Few fundamental topics still exist in organizations that need attention and transformation:
‘Soft’ (skills) is still not given sufficient credit in many corporate environments. This is one of the most misleading aspects of leadership that many leaders have to shift their sometimes unaware bias. To make matters worse, many leaders hire people similar to them; build comfort zones reinforcing the existing culture and related behaviors.
Beyond a certain level of responsibility, organizations don’t emphasize promoting for leadership skills, rather than individual smartness, technical skills or IQ. Technical career paths could help ensure that individuals are not pressured to take roles for the wrong reasons.
Individuals get promoted and hired for technical skills and that trend continues for years before it becomes too difficult to change behaviors. Strong coaching or mentoring support especially during the first two or three leadership transitions can go a long way in building a solid base for self-awareness and behavior change.
Like it or not, enormous amount of power is still vested in leadership roles. Many smart leaders get carried away with their leadership roles and stop being truly receptive to other ideas and thinking, which leads to mediocrity unrecognizable by the individuals themselves but visible to others. The power equation and dynamics makes it even more difficult for open feedback to be shared. How can we help leaders stay grounded and open?
There should be consequences for bad leadership behaviors. Prof. Bob Sutton from Stanford University defines ‘work jerks’ as people who pick on those beneath them and leave others feeling belittled and sapped of energy.9 People should know that is not efficient and it’s going to cost them. More awareness is needed on the amount of direct and indirect damage that ‘work jerks’ can inflict. Unfortunately, many senior leaders in the business world are not held accountable for building sustainable organizations for the long run.10 A recent Forbes article also indicated that psychopathic behavior in senior leadership may be more prevalent than we think.11
Leading diverse groups of individuals from different generations and backgrounds can be very challenging. Add to this, legacy organizational cultures steeped in old management styles and ways of working results in huge amounts of frustration and disengagement. Leaders impact organizational behaviors and influence culture strongly through their individual day to day behaviors and actions. People in the organization watch them closely and replicate.
Each one of us can be an influencing force in our own environments by being proponents and practitioners of new thinking. We need a critical mass of believers to transform leadership practices in organizations.
It would be great to hear your views and inputs on this topic.
Do you agree that there is need for leadership practices to evolve?
What do we require from leaders in today’s world?
What needs to change?
Do we have examples of outliers and thinking worth sharing and adopting?