Did you see the New Zealand Weekend Herald article: Never mind leadership, get on with your job? “Bosses should stop encouraging employees to become leaders – and teach them how to be followers instead” says Professor Birgit Schyns.
I couldn’t disagree more. Yet, it does depend on how you define leadership. If you see it as a title or role, there is a lot relying on a few to have great character or to have had great mentoring or training (or a combination of all three). Failure to get this right exposes organisations to under-performance at best (which in a competitive world can be economically fatal) and power abuse at worst. (Ask the average employee about the costs and lost productivity from a bad boss. Most people have had one or know someone who has.)
Signs that organisations commonly fail the leadership test:
- A bad boss (according to Gallup research of a million employees worldwide) is the #1 reason for wasteful attrition
- Personal grievances compound workplace stress and stress (that escalates and spreads through the workplace like influenza) is associated with costly errors, reworks and productivity issues
- Perceived lack of communication: “being kept in the dark and fed on $%#^”
- The observation that “New Zealand is over-managed and under-led”
One thing Prof Birgit Schyns (of Durham University Business School) says that I agree with is that employees “….should be alerting the leader to flaws in the decision making, pointing out that this is not going to work for their customers. They have a lot of important information that the leader needs to know.” (The prof doesn’t say if she has had a go at telling the boss they’ve got it wrong.)
In the 90’s, legendary rugby union captain, Zinzan Brooke, made a statement that profoundly influenced my own approach to business: “I want 15 captains on the field.” Was this a recipe for disaster? Quite the opposite.
Having studied both first hand and at a distance the key criteria for organisation success, it is pretty well clear that a leading TEAM will always outperform a leader outnumbered by followers i.e. vertical control with little room for critical mass real contribution and collective responsibility.
Ralph Stayer knew this when he pointed out that hunters know how to overcome a herd of buffalo: you take out the head buffalo. He knew his very successful business was at risk by virtue of his leadership (centralised control?). The real and imminent risk of this scared him into action. His business transformation is now folklore but simply put he said: “I had to learn how to become a coach.” An early action was to put workers in charge of what had previously been done by the bosses.
The leadership our organisations need is that which is inside every person, every situation. Leadership is ACTION the current situation needs. People only show leadership if they understand the business model, the context and the role they and their team plays in the entire value chain. And people only show leadership if it is not only expected, but required.
The real question is: Are those in charge ready to put the best interests of shareholders, clients and other strategic stakeholders ahead of their own?