We don’t really know what ‘good’ leadership looks like in Australia, according to Anthony Mitchell, co-founder of strategic leadership firm Bendelta, writing in SMH.
Why is employee engagement at systemically low levels? Why is the economy stumbling? Why is innovation hard to find? And why aren’t organisations doing more to fix these problems?
From sport and chess to medicine and technology, we see individuals of such talent that they win grand slams, are made grandmasters and receive Nobel prizes. We see performance levels rise year after year as the insights on what it takes to be the best become ever more sophisticated.
So, why isn’t this the case in the leadership of organisations? Why do we see highly paid executives – whose roles are putatively centred on leadership – perform with such mediocrity or worse when it comes to inspiring people and generating outstanding results? How do they even manage to keep their jobs?
The reasons for this malaise are many, but two stand out.
We are fooling ourselves
Firstly, we don’t really know what “good” looks like. This may sound like an incredible claim, given the thousands of books on leadership and the number of models in circulation. However, as Stanford business school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer laid out in his book Leadership BS, interviews with those who reported to self-acclaimed former CEOs reveal that their actual leadership approach was nothing like what they espoused in their books.
Consider how ridiculous this is. Can you imagine Novak Djokovic or the reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, post retirement, saying that they played or trained in a way that wasn’t what they actually did?
We shouldn’t be too surprised by these misrepresentations. Such self-delusion is possible when you don’t really know what good looks like, and receive only the skimpiest and most subjective feedback on your skills and effectiveness. (Just to be clear, a 360-degree survey of people who also don’t know what good looks like doesn’t really cut it.)
We aren’t committed to fixing the biggest issue
The second issue is that we aren’t really prepared to do anything about the problem. Given our cognitive biases, our starting point is that “I’m better than the average leader already”. However, those at the top of the organisation know that this is not true – except perhaps for when they look in the mirror. So they determine to do something about it.
But what is our prescription? We send people on leadership programs. This is well intentioned but if the goal is to create world-class leaders, most programs are hopelessly deficient. Djokovic invests more time and energy each year on improving his ball toss than 90 per cent of organisations invest in total on developing a key leader.
Djokovic feels exhausted after a training session, having been stretched throughout. By contrast, a typical leadership program participant sits in a classroom feeling somewhere between relaxed and bored, listening to guest speakers or discussing frameworks, creating internal narratives such as “Yes, that’s what I do now”, “That’s what I think too, so she must be right” or “I don’t agree with him so he must be wrong and I’ll keep doing what I do”. It’s almost impossible to improve if you barely leave your comfort zone.
At the heart of the failure is that these interventions are not materially altering the structure or process of the participants’ brains. Without this, how can any material or sustainable change be possible?
Change or die
Some organisations and their CEOs are realising that this isn’t good enough. They look at what they are doing to improve the quality of leadership and see that it is both inadequate and methodologically flawed.
Why are they doing so? Partly, because they appreciate the work in the field of cognitive bias and see that more scientific methods are needed to surmount our over-confidence and self-delusion. But mostly because business success, in a world of innovative disruption and machine learning, has become incredibly hard. Too hard to accept an outdated approach to the most important driver of business outcomes – the quality of leadership.
The solution is to operate companies much more like professional sport, grandmaster-level chess or Nobel-level science. Empirically, humans are smarter than we were 20 years ago. One of the biggest improvements has been our understanding that we aren’t as smart as we think we are – that we have flawed beliefs that we then self-rationalise. We are now smart enough to recognise that the most important driver of business success – the quality of leadership – requires a level of science proportionate to its impact. Very soon, the best organisations will be producing the commercial equivalents of Djokovic and Carlsen – and with that level of mastery of leadership, they will be the clear victors.
Anthony Mitchell is the co-founder of strategic leadership firm Bendelta.