The last decade is a strong contender for the title “the decade of dubious leadership.” From the handling of Katrina to the collapse of the banking system, it was a disastrous decade for leadership. Ironically, it was also a decade during which more was written on leadership than ever before. I’m hoping for a better decade of leadership, and here are my top five leadership trends I’d like to see take off in the coming years.
1. Good enough leadership. Enough with excellence. We may be better off with good enough leadership. Our infatuation with leaders and celebrities smacks of feudalism, and might even be at the root of leadership failures. When we overly estimate high rank, we don’t see those above us as needing help, dependent, or fallible. So rather than feeling it’s our responsibility to help leaders, we hold them to an impossible standard of behavior, and when a lapse occurs, attribute the fault to an abuse of power, rather than to their human fallibility. This deification of leadership is bad for organizations and bad for democracy. It furthers the idea that change happens from above, and serves as a disincentive for others to step forward to lead and serve. And when leaders buy into their own deification they keep themselves isolated and out of touch with what’s happening. Good enough leadership recognizes leader’s limitations, fallibility, need for help and dependence on those below. Leaders can only be as good as the followers they develop.
2. Better followership. This is the flip side of #1 above. Subordinates are just as crucial to the success of an organization as the leader. The higher up you go in an organization the more dependent you are on those below for getting work done. Information is filtered to you through subordinates who are trying to curry your favor, compete for your job, and preserve their good name. Fostering better followership should be job #1 for any leader. The subordinate’s responsibility is to be honest and direct with the boss, to know and relate to the boss’s working style, expectations, and style of communication and above all, to let the boss know what’s happening, both problems and failures as well as successes.
3. Be a leader with limits. Sustainability is the buzzword of the decade. When we think about sustainability we tend to think about recycling and carbon emissions, but not about our bodies. Work-life balance is a sustainability issue; knowing our bodies’ limits, attending to fatigue, and factoring our energy into the bottom line should be the next big thing in the green revolution. If we closed a crucial deal but got sick in the process, what did we accomplish? Our bodies are like the canary in the coal mine: fatigue, fear, hesitation and uncertainty are important signals that can help us create more sustainable leadership practices for ourselves and for the people we lead.
4. Leading means Learning. Studies show that the most effective workplace learning doesn’t happen in a classroom, on a computer screen, or even at an expensive off-site, but through interaction, relationship and informal mentoring. In other words, learning happens all the time, day by day, minute by minute, through relationship and formal and informal mentoring. We know that the single biggest cost to an organization is finding and growing talent. Learning is a serious business and competitive advantage goes to the organization that recognizes and leverages implicit learning. What is the role of the leader in this? The role of the leader is to model that learning and to foster others’ desires to learn in the workplace.
5. Be nice. We’re inundated with research that shows the importance of positive emotions and a pleasant atmosphere on productivity and employee retention. A study in the Harvard Business Review (June 2005, Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools ) found that likeability is so key in the workplace that people are more likely to ask help from someone likeable than someone competent. The quality of interaction with our immediate boss and co-workers is cited as the single most important reason behind voluntary turnover, and is linked positively to employee engagement, morale, and performance. Finally, recent research that emotions are contagious, that people mimic facial expressions and synchronize their moods with others; it makes the value of niceness even greater. And leaders are more emotionally “contagious” than others. It’s not rocket science, it’s something we all feel and know intuitively, but now research is validating our intuitions: the better the mood, the greater the level of collaboration, and the greater the results achieved. People who get on well get more done in less time and with less cost.
What would you like to see in the next decade?