Article: Embrace hard truths to develop effective leaders

Leadership

Embrace hard truths to develop effective leaders

Leadership development is a multibillion-dollar industry, but it is often a waste of enterprise resources.
Embrace hard truths to develop effective leaders

Most often, we hear corporate leaders say they need a more "inspirational" presentation on leadership to motivate their senior management team. According to them, content based on the realities of organisational life and related social science research isn’t uplifting enough.

Such views are common in the leadership development and training industry. Many leadership development programmes feature well-known speakers telling compelling life stories about overcoming various physical or economic challenges. Some events feature engaging speakers narrating examples of leaders who “apparently” are modest, authentic, take care of others, tell the truth, and build trust, among other virtues. We say “apparently” because leaders are often quite successful at creating public personas that differ significantly from the reality of actually working with them. 

As a power leadership expert, Jeff has established how power and influence skills are essential to getting things done. Power is the organisation’s last dirty secret, but it is also the secret to individual and organisational success. Telling inspiring fables doesn’t develop either the knowledge or the skills that help people become more effective in getting things done. Examples galore all around, whether in politics, MNCs, SMEs or the unorganised sector.

The pervasive “feel-good" approach to leadership development may explain why it is not effective. According to a Gallup study, on average, just 30% of employees are engaged at work. 17% are actively disengaged and the rest (53%) are in the “not engaged” group. A 2018 survey reported that 80% of employees could do their jobs without their managers and only 53% thought their managers cared about their well-being, while an Edelman report found that 63% of executives felt their CEOs were somewhat or not at all credible. Another study found a mere 7% of senior managers think that their companies develop effective leaders. 

Leadership development is a few billion-dollar industry, but quite often it is wasted enterprise resources. Isn’t it time to change this and do things differently?

Inspiration will not necessarily create lasting change

The big problem is that inspiration is a goal of many leadership development agenda but it is a poor method to achieve lasting change. The temporary motivational high wears off soon.

Social psychology research evidence shows that social environments affect behaviour. Changing behaviour, be it in a 12-step abstinence programme or any other effort, requires altering the people in one's social network. Moreover, changing the physical cues that influence behaviour is another important intervention. And as the quality movement taught us, the measurements that provide people feedback about what they should be doing and how well they are meeting their objectives is a third potent way of accomplishing behavioural change. Inspiration—not so much.

A new venture is designing applications to push people to engage in “better” (based on the evidence) leader behaviours, under the theory that cuing appropriate behaviour will drive productive change. 

At the lowest level, leadership development efforts should stop measuring how much people enjoyed the programme —a process that reinforces edutainment – and instead assess the programmes against important objectives such as increasing engagement, decreasing turnover, and ensuring sufficient numbers of leaders, and so forth.

Most leaders don't walk the walk

The qualities that leadership programmes relentlessly advocate, albeit wonderful, are frequently absent in contemporary political and corporate leaders. Modesty and many contemporary political or business leaders, including Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Larry Ellison, and even Howard Schultz – don't seem to go together. 

Decades of research show that narcissism, not modesty, is correlated with being hired, being promoted, job tenure, and even sometimes group performance. The disconnect between what leadership development programmes advocate and what people see, often in their immediate environments from their own senior leaders, produces a high degree of cynicism and a reluctance to accept the lessons being proffered.

All leadership development efforts would be well-served to change the emphasis from aspirational qualities that are not only rare but often not helpful to a focus on pragmatic skills such as the ability to exude presence, build useful networks, create valuable resources, and tolerate not being liked that are associated with many success metrics.

Isn’t "leadership" as a term ambiguous? "Leadership" remains too ambiguous. There are many dimensions to leadership effectiveness: employee engagement, employee health and well-being, productivity, ethical compliance – the list goes on. These aspects are far from perfectly correlated with each other. Leadership development initiatives would benefit greatly from more focus. Organisations need to decide what the most important aspects of leadership are and recognise the realities of trade-offs.

Leaders must master organisational politics

Leaders need to get things done. Period. An important focus of leadership development efforts needs to be teaching people in leadership roles how to understand and use the principles of power and influence that are invariably essential for making things happen.

Jeff has coached scores of people in social science, helping them understand power dynamics and principles of influence and making them do amazing things in their careers. Years later, they still remember and use, their knowledge. Retention of learning should be an important part of any leadership development effort so that resources aren't wasted on transitory effects.

Gerald Ferris, co-author of Political Skill at Work, has developed a political skills inventory and conducted numerous studies showing how political skill is associated with career success and leadership effectiveness. Those skills, and the influence tactics described by Robert Cialdini in his masterful books, Influence and Pre-suasion, can be learned and practiced.

Leaders who don't master organisational politics don't stay in their roles very long, and many career derailments occur when people reach organisational levels where jobs entail much more interdependence that requires being able to influence others.

Power and influence concepts do a much better job of helping people understand what they see in the organisational and social world around them and become more effective at making things happen. Far from Jack Nicholson's famous line in the movie, A Few Good Men, not only can people handle the truth, educational efforts that are rooted in the hard truths of leadership, even if occasionally challenging or unpleasant, are much more likely to produce lasting improvements in leader effectiveness. Certainly, India’s opposition leaders need some hard leadership lessons to be effective.

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Topics: Leadership, Strategic HR, #HybridLeadership

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