What challenges are leaders facing?
David Cleeton-Watkins, senior consultant, Roffey Park Institute [DCW]:
Beyond the obvious issues – recession, turbulent markets, political instability – there is a much greater challenge: how they can sustain their credibility so they can employ the essential 'soft power' needed to get people on side. Memories of press excess, MPs' expenses, ministerial indiscretions and the Libor scandal are still vivid in people's minds so leaders need to demonstrate that they can act ethically. Decisions must stand up to critical review and leaders must be skilled in assessing risk and behaving honourably so they remain credible when things get sticky.
Describe the changing role of todays leaders
DCW: Perhaps the most significant change is the move towards becoming an agent of change, recognising the nature of organisations as complex systems. Instead of being a 'hero' leader driving things forward, it's more about being an adaptive one who can respond to context and help others deploy their skills to serve the organisation. At the same time, the modern business leader must play a part in focusing people’s efforts on serving the organisation’s mission or purpose.
Dr Douglas Board, senior visiting fellow, Cass Business School [DB]:
The role is an increasingly demanding and confusing one. We know that the multiple, on-going manifestations of global crisis have called many myths into question such as charismatic leadership or self-correcting markets or organisations being ‘in control’, but many of the suggested solutions look unconvincing. We see that, in the past, we swallowed some big ideas too easily, so we are more sceptical about any idea offered to us. Leaders are affected twice, with question marks over what ideas can really help them, and more question marks in the minds of their followers when they try to act.
How is the demand for executive leadership programmes changing?
DCW: There is a greater focus on leadership and adaptable behaviour and less emphasis on being a ‘top of the shop’ decision maker. Leaders still need to develop judgement and strategic direction, but the move towards accepting a less predictable world has resulted in a new business model for strategy. This encompasses complexity and the ability to move quickly to deploy resources differently. This is best illustrated in the mobile communications industry.
DB: There is a strong desire to develop ethical leaders, and an even greater desire to be seen to be doing this. Extended, practice-based programmes are encouraged, where leaders support each other in wrestling with live dilemmas over a period of several months. These dilemmas should always have a political dimension, which is easier to address in programmes where peers from different organisations come together. In order to be seen to be developing ethical leaders, companies typically commission shorter, in-house programmes in which leaders are taught the house values. Alongside an increasing interest in ethics, there may also be rising interest in courage.
What behaviours, competencies and skills are needed to lead an organisation to greatness?
DCW: This is the kind of reductionist question much loved of HR but it does not truly address the complexity of an effective individual. A leader might have spikes of ability or personality traits that identify them as driven or ambitious, but this has to be balanced with an intellectual ability that fits the sector, as well as a degree of emotional management (EI). They must also be aware of their potential derailers – what they must compensate for to ensure their peers do not spot their potential gaffes.
DB: There is growing awareness of the limitations of competency-based analyses of leadership. There will always be room for individuals to improve their skills but research points us to focus more on leadership as a complex social, political and intuitive process.
Leaders under pressure
What causes a lot of leaders to fall down when under pressure?
DCW: Poor self-awareness coupled with vanity or ego are dangerous combinations. Many recent failures can be laid at the door of ‘personalities’ who thought they knew best and ignored advice. Through a combination of differing roles and exposure to a range of contexts, leaders can learn to listen to what is said and evaluate it intuitively and analytically.
Can we develop leaders who are not self-serving?
DB: Possibly, but it takes time and it has to happen before leaders reach the most senior positions. But development is not the only answer. Research can help us spot narcissistic and psychopathic leaders who may appear to be strong candidates for promotion but need to be screened out. We need non-executive directors whose values base does not replicate that of hero-CEOs in order to challenge and call time on them at the appropriate moment.
How can leaders prepare themselves to confront those challenges, be brave and take risks?
DCW: It truly depends where they are starting from. Perhaps most importantly, they need to be aware of their values and their ethical position. What are the principles that guide how decisions are made in themselves and in the business they are a leader in? It is all too easy to act expediently under pressure, sacrificing hard-won trust in the hope things will improve. Development work here must focus on fostering a true sense of groundedness and resilience – and an ability to accept disappointments and go forward afresh.
What advice would you give to leaders to win the respect of the people they are leading, be innovative and navigate through turbulent times?
DCW: Be interested in your people and customers – go out there and find out what they think. Be aware that others do most of the work: your role is to model what is needed to succeed. Also, be kindly, accepting and available while setting very high expectations for delivery.
DB: When the world is chaotic and many people try to manipulate us, we cling even more tightly to simple certainties. Most simple certainties are dangerous. One of the few that isn’t is that leaders only have 24 hours in their days. In trying to signal what really matters to a leader, the currency of how they spend their time remains a platinum standard. Stories such as that of former British Airways CEO Colin Marshall regularly spending Christmas Eve evenings in the airline's hangars and terminals to wish staff a happy Christmas, will stay with us as shining examples even in a confusing or cynical world.
senior consultant, Roffey Park Institute
David is a business psychologist and development specialist. He is programme director for leading and delivering lasting change and realising leadership potential.
Dr Douglas Board
senior visiting fellow, Cass Business School
David spent 18 years in executive search and has had leadership positions in several charities. He is the author of Choosing Leaders and Choosing to Lead: Science, Politics and Intuition in Executive Selection.