Is Leadership Harder Now Than Ever?

It might be said that leadership was easy once upon a time. You told someone to do something and it was done. Of course that works better if you’re medieval royalty and there is fealty involved. Or maybe we think our leaders should be some sort of archetypal hero who will save the day.

The obvious scandals of  Lehman Brothers, LIBOR or the News Corp phone hacking  undermine authority. But it isn’t just the public scandals that are eroding our understanding of leadership. Barbara Kellerman has an historical and wide-ranging discussion of how leaders all over the world are struggling with technology, cultural shifts and workplace changes. These are leading to less hierarchy and a more democratic environment.

Challenges galore

Social media, economic uncertainty, shifting centers of power and other variables are creating turbulence on top of the usual responsibilities of business leaders. In an interesting post in the Harvard Business Review from 2009, Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky write about how leadership is in a permanent crisis so leaders must both reinvent and adapt. Another factor is the evolving trends in the workplace that affect how leaders interact with their organizations and the individuals within the organization.

Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky write:

“…leadership is an improvisational and experimental art. The skills that enabled most executives to their positions of command-analytical problem solving, crisp decision making, the articulation of a clear direction-can get in the way of success.”

On a day to day basis, leadership is an improvisational and experimental art. The leader articulates a vision and goals but real life is more often messy and uncertain. The leader’s alignment of words and actions attract or disgust followers.

Losing or gaining followers

There are a number of workplace surveys including this 2012 one from the Hay Group that reports how workers are less engaged, less productive and more likely to leave for better opportunities. (We took a look at this in a #KaizenBiz discussion asking “Could Your Business Suffer a Brain Drain?”) This indicates quite a bit about the ongoing gap that stretches between the leaders and employees. While the Hay Group survey reports an uptick globally, people report that they have little to no faith in or connection to those who run their organizations. There is simply too much bureaucracy, job insecurity, hostile workplaces or a lack of genuine opportunities to grow and develop skills.

Current leadership thought

Current leadership thought seems to focus on themes of the leader being less individualistic and more in tune with the emotional life of his/her organization. There are posts like the book review on Strategy + Business about the “Four Traits of Collaborative Leaders” which urges leaders to exhibit authenticity, describe one’s decision-making process, sharing resources rather than hoarding and “codify the relationship between decision rights, accountability and rewards.” A post by Vineet Nayar on HBR Blog Network, lists “Three Leadership Traits That Never Go Out of Style” as trust, empathy and mentorship. There are leaders like John Mackey (CEO of Whole Foods), Lola Gonzalez (CEO of Accurate Background Check) and Shinichiro Ito (President and CEO of ANA Group) who are often cited as examples of ethical and effective leaders. They may be outliers and other leaders may not see how they can use them as models.

And what is swirling around leaders at all levels of business and society?

It’s hard to boil all of this down into a one blog post. In some parts of the world, it has been noted that there is less civility and a greater sense of entitlement. Another trend that has been noted is that respect given to leaders has been negatively affected by institutional failings. We noted during our #KaizenBiz discussion, “The Euro Crisis-Bred In The Bone“, that leadership failed to set a coherent course to anticipate and manage the mismatch of struggling economies with more stable ones. It would be easy to see these challenges as mainly in the US or Europe. However, with increased online connectivity and globalization, could leadership be stuck in a morass of cowardice and blindness or evolving into something more enlightened and people-centered? In the meantime, leaders have to continue experimenting and improvising. Not an easy task.

How do we recognize authority?

Are people expecting too much from their leaders? Why or why not?

How do leaders adapt to the constant changes?

Why do we tolerate bad and/or unethical leadership?

What steps can we take individually to encourage good leadership?

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2 thoughts on “Is Leadership Harder Now Than Ever?

  1. I like that part where you mention the people who achieve certain position in an organisation, or like myself who started his own business, suddenly you’re faced with the task of being a leader, people depending on you to make choices, and in this way, you are many things at once and sometimes, more often than not, your leadership may be less than stellar.

    I want to make things happen for my company, I want to create an environment where my employees feel relaxed and motivated, where compromises are made and we can work as a team, and for that we need planning, leadership skills amount to little if there is no strategy.

    Since I don’t believe in coincidence I believe that we only see signs when we are ready to see them, not sooner.

    Thank you for bringing the subject to light.

    • Josh,

      Thanks for the comment. Part of this topic came from the conversations I have with my small business clients who discover that being a leader is something that stretches you as a whole person. The other part came from seeing so many articles and posts about current thinking and critiques of leaders. It seems that leaders at all levels are trying to get a handle on the many changes in the environment and uncertainty as well as keeping track of the basic responsibilities. It isn’t always clear that you can use someone else as an example so it is hard to know what are the best choices.

      I wish you every success with your business and continue asking questions! You’ll discover what you need to know.

      ~Elli

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