We don’t want great leadership.
That sentence alone might be enough to convince you that I’m talking nonsense. Whilst you can probably find plenty of evidence to back that up, on this occasion – the occasion where I lead with probably the most preposterous, attention seeking, confrontational statement I’ve put my name to – I’ll try to convince you I’m not. Or, at least, there’s some thinking behind the words.
We all say we want great leadership and, on an individual basis, that’s undoubtedly true. We hear about great leaders and look longingly in their direction, wishing we had greater insight into their minds, or even worked in their presence. We read books about leadership by people who have studied it for years, experiencing our own “a-ha” moments as we lap them up. We certainly love a good leadership quote, if social media meme likes are anything to go by.
So why, then, given our desire for everything great leadership has to offer, are there such mixed results and inconsistency when it comes to companies having great leaders? Sure, not everyone can be great at everything, and there’s no one definition of “Great Leadership”, and therefore no set right way of doing it. But with enough material on the subject, enough role models out there, we should all be pointed in roughly the right direction.
The devil is in the detail. Three significant things happen that prove to me that we don’t value leadership highly enough, despite what we say.
The first is around promotions. Many of us are lucky enough to have a team of excellent people around us; subject matter experts and technical masters at what they do. So what do you do when they reach their ceiling in that role? Promote them to people leadership positions to justify throwing a bit more money at them to keep them happy and, largely, hope they make it.
What’s often the end result? No longer are they experts, and the reality that they now have to manage and lead people, a skill set entirely different from what they’d previously excelled with, scares the living daylights out of them. It’s little wonder that they revert to what they know and stick to being experts, and the leadership part becomes an avoided chore. Before long, and more damaging to a wider number of people, their team is done a disservice through poor leadership. Sinking or swimming is treacherous enough when you’re risking one person, when it’s a capsized boat, it’s a lot more difficult to haul that many people out of the water.
If we truly wanted great leadership, we would set people on that path from a much earlier point. It should be part of that person’s development plan; their career pathway, but only if that’s something they’re interested in. It’s not for everyone. For those people, we must help them grow in other ways within and beyond their existing roles. They’re still leaders. We owe it to our outstanding people to give them the best chance to succeed and not leave it to luck.
The second thing that makes me question our desire for great leadership is recruitment. We’ve all seen the job ads. “Widget Manager, great organisation, we want a great leader, great opportunity etc.” Scan down the ad to the bullet points of essential skills. First one, “Must have 10+ years experience making widgets”, somewhere on the sixth or seventh bullet point, after the one about the ability to meet widget targets, and the one about having a degree in widget making, comes “Leadership experience”.
I’m in the camp that believes that most manager roles are 80% leadership, 20% technical knowledge. Yet that 20% seems to be driving our leadership positions, with experience leading people relegated to an afterthought. Check out Seek or your local recruitment agency ads; they’ll all be pretty much the same. This isn’t necessarily a knock on the agencies doing the recruitment, it’s the demands of their clients to value technical experience over leadership skills.
Finally, the third detail that gets in the way of great leadership is a part of the recruitment process; the interview. Most companies of any size recruit with two or more people on the interview panel, preferably with one HR person, or at least someone independent from another area. They’re there largely to assess cultural fit, and look beyond the technical expertise of the applicant. Why, then, don’t we take enough notice of those other people on the panel when they provide valuable input? I have all too often seen their views rank lower in importance to the hiring manager who is almost predetermined in their requirements. Yes, the hiring manager is the one accountable at the end of the day and will have the person reporting directly to them, but there’s more to all roles, not just leadership ones, than skills in the area they’re going to be working in. I’m not advocating for ignoring those skills and only recruiting people who “fit in” but, ultimately, you can often teach skills much easier than you can make a square peg fit in a round hole.
No one actively wants bad leadership but, until we make significant changes in these three areas, until we stop pushing it down our list of priorities, I’ll remain convinced that the desire to have great leadership is little more than a nice meme and the source of, ironically, yet another article.
At Coachio, we don’t just write messages on boards, we believe in them and we know we can help. We can deliver anything from training for new or aspiring leaders, to management training, through to exec coaching, and customise programmes to be specifically relevant to your needs. Contact us to find out more.