It’s difficult to lead in 2019. Leaders are under scrutiny like never before. As a society, we are sceptical of leaders’ motives and competence. Why do they want to lead? Are they up to the job? It is not a radical idea to suggest leaders are no longer as powerful as they once seemed.
A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that young Americans are less likely than older adults to say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in religious leaders, police officers and business leaders. In Australia, Swinburne University’s Australian Leadership Index highlights a declining faith in political parties to provide real leadership.
Talk to leaders today, and they will tell you their roles are constrained, and at the same time undermined; they feel exposed as they are increasingly held accountable for results, yet not really in control of them.
These are the themes of our recent research with leaders from a variety of organizations, in which we asked them about how leaders can improve.
We carried out a series of in-depth interviews lasting between 45-60 minutes with heads of businesses and organisations from a cross-section of public and private sector bodies in professional services, energy, banking, education, religious organisations, politics and the media, among others. The interviews were recorded, transcribed and thematically analysed independently. Our sample of 25 UK leaders were all either the head of (80%) or a member of (20%) the top team of their organisation. The sample was 60% men, 40% women, aged between 35 and 70.
Across the board(room), we heard leaders say that, for organizations to succeed, there must be a shift: away from “heroic”, individualistic leadership, or “ego”, towards a leadership that recognizes internal and external ecosystems, or “eco”.
We are not suggesting that the more traditional methods of leadership are entirely outmoded. However, the skills and leadership traits with which many leaders have grown up will no longer be sufficient for effective leadership today.
Here are five things leaders can do today to successfully lead their organizations into tomorrow – and move from “ego” to “eco”.
1. Cultivate loyalty through accountability and transparency
Leaders told us the traditional, hierarchical power structure has faded away. They can no longer rely on rank or position to command loyalty from and action by members. Instead, leaders must cultivate loyalty through accountability and transparency.
“These days, you have to learn to reach out to the opposition in the organization. In the past, you would oppose them, or could ignore them. That’s no longer possible – you have to work with them as part of the context,” one local government leader said “There is very little I can do unilaterally, it’s really only possible to be successful in a highly contested environment like local government by working together with others. With one project, there was a lot of resistance, and we couldn’t understand it, I couldn’t get this guy to agree. I realised I would have to invest a lot of time in that relationship, that something we are not always very good at, finding time for people outside of formal meetings, we had leadership development sessions but that’s not the same thing as building a relationship. I think he saw the world in a very different way to me. Previously I would just have overruled him, but today you have to work with ‘the enemy’. The power of social media means they are potentially more influential than you are.”
The ideal of organizational loyalty and unity around shared values is more precarious in this contested world. Leaders are no longer guaranteed deference and respect; dissent and conflict are the new norm. Commitment, loyalty and trust tend to be short-term, and relationships are more transactional, reducing the levers of influence. Leaders must get used to working with people with a plurality of viewpoints. (More on diversity in #5.)
To work with this plurality, or even with “the enemy”, transparency is critical. “Everyone has access. You have to expect people will sooner or later know most things, and particularly the things you don’t want them to know about,” one law firm head told us.
Leaders need to get used to being under 24/7 scrutiny in the age of social media. They have to accept they have vulnerabilities, and they have to get comfortable learning in public. Leadership is a public conversation in which you have to acknowledge mistakes and ignorance.
The leader’s office, it seems, has glass walls and a transparent door – generally a good thing, if sometimes uncomfortable.
2. Shape the narrative, shape the context
Leaders are like farmers. Farmers don’t grow crops; farmers create the conditions for crops to grow. Likewise, leaders must shape the narrative and context in which their organizations operate, or the organizations don’t survive.
First, leaders must ask whether they are helping the organization tell its own story, or whether they are acting out somebody else’s script. “Leaders need to get out and shape the story rather than work within the one you’ve inherited,” one school head told us. “I need to understand and connect with my students’ view of the world first, before trying to influence them.”
Second, leaders must foster purpose. Increasingly, employees are demanding meaningful work. They want to feel their organization is contributing positively to society, above and beyond shareholder value or government policy.
Third, leaders need to get comfortable with unpredictability, with ambiguity, with paradox. In a world of radical uncertainty, it’s risky to focus on what’s “known” and comfortable. “If it were ever possible to predict the future, it certainly isn’t now!” said the head of an advertising agency. “If I’m feeling comfortable making decisions about a topic, then it generally means I am doing someone else’s job, I’ve stopped being a leader and become a manager”.
To do this, understand leadership is a conversation. When a leader speaks, they should not only describe a given reality, but also aim to change perceptions. Leaders shape and develop an organization by deliberately addressing the conversations that are going on in an organization, as well as making sure that the right conversations are happening between the right people, in the right way.
3. Liberate the organization’s collective intelligence
Knowledge exists in networks and collective capabilities as much as in individuals. Leadership is less about providing the answer, and more about releasing collective intelligence within the organization.
A good leader should foster and grow the internal connection and collaboration within an organization’s ecosystem to liberate this collective intelligence. Likewise, a leader should view leadership as an emergent and shared property of the system and encourage conditions in which others can take up leadership roles, too.
4. Allow structures to evolve, with input from members
There is no “perfect structure” for an organization. It’s better to think of structure as something that needs to evolve, with input from leaders and members.
As soon as an organizational structure is created, it has the tendency to accumulate power – and risks becoming a constraint on further development. When determining structure, leaders should focus on a minimum of structure and rules – and challenge power bases.
In addition, leaders should create structures that enable agency and participation by members, allowing competence (rather than reputation and status) to solve problems and determine organizational influence.
5. Embrace diversity
“Connecting is as important as directing,” said one interviewee, a hospital chief executive. “The hospital is run by a leadership team of 30 people which I chair who meet weekly, the maximum size that felt manageable, which can really represent and connect with the diversity of views amongst the staff”.
Your organization is not a culture – it’s a multi-culture. The workplace is now diverse beyond the capacity of any individual to comprehend all of its variations – and good ideas can come from anywhere.
Leaders must get comfortable with diversity, recognize their assumptions and prejudices, and demonstrate openness to different points of view within the organization. They should recognize, too, that people have multiple identities – home, community, work – and make better use of this plurality.
Successful leaders work to increase participation from diverse members, especially to solve complex problems, and often, must be prepared to work with conflicting value systems. By excluding people from analysing and solving problems, organizations are deprived of different perspectives and sources of creativity. And by allowing members to bring more of their external identities into the organization, leaders will foster more innovative solutions to challenges.
Human beings will always look for charismatic, heroic leaders when they are facing significant adversity. But leaders today must resist the pull to be saviours, and instead, work to enable the conditions in which their people can participate in the process of organizational leadership, too.