‘Inspiration is a poor way to accomplish change’: Why we’re failing at leadership

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates leadership

Steve Jobs was known for his more creative and autocratic leadership style, while Bill Gates is known for his participative style. (Source: wikimedia CC 2.0)

It’s easy to be cynical about leadership. We’re constantly being betrayed by those who occupy positions of power and influence. Leaders lie, they’re incompetent, they’re frequently downright sociopathic.

And yet we know — or think that we do — that individuals who possess particular attributes can and do make great things happen. All of us have examples of people we admire, who we’ve been inspired by or who we perceive as being highly effective at driving progressive change.

For those of us running our own businesses or leading teams, we’re deeply conscious of the value of emulating these characteristics and practices.

But according to Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, who spoke at the Future of Work Conference in Melbourne last week, in the workplace at least, we are failing woefully at leadership development.

There are too many career derailments, too many miserable workplaces, poor engagement, bullying and abuse is rife, and people are counting the days til they can move on. Furthermore, there’s not much evidence of positive change.

We must, can and should do better.

Read more: The top 50 best places to work in Australia

How do we know a good leader when we see one?

The problem, as Pffefer identified in his presentation on ‘Leadership BS: Fixing the leadership development process’, is that there is no professional or scientific expertise or experience required to be a ‘leadership expert’, and yet we seek them out as if there were.

When recruiting for senior positions in our businesses, we tend to gravitate to those who self-describe as leadership experts, being drawn in particular to one of two leadership profiles: authentic or charismatic leadership.

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Leadership BS. Source: YouTube

Being authentic or charismatic can be highly effective for engaging people. Leaders who fall into these categories love to tell stories and invoke a sense of adventure or nostalgia in order to bring people along with them. And while this is important for getting people’s attention, it’s not actually an effective way of getting things done. It raises motivation, but briefly, and can create unrealistic expectations. We hear things that aren’t true, leading to cynicism and disillusionment.

While it stands to reason that we would want authentic and/or charismatic leaders at the helm, leadership is about getting things done, not winning a popularity contest. Great leaders are pragmatists. They measure outcomes that matter: satisfaction, engagement, bullying, turnover, the number of potential successors, leader effectiveness, and so on. And they prioritise and implement tactics that support those outcomes.

When it comes to recruiting for the right people to fulfil some of our more senior positions, therefore, we need to be looking for experts (not entertainers, as Pfeffer put it) who are highly attuned to delivering outcomes that will drive leadership evaluation and development.

Jeffrey Pfeffer’s tips for recruiting and developing good leaders:

  1. Do due diligence on your leaders — get the facts and stop mythologising; stop chasing inspiration;
  2. Be clear about the traits you want and why they’re right ones. What do you actually want to achieve with these leaders?
  3. Beware the ‘narcissist’ archetype — they’re highly skilled at getting our attention. As it happens, traits we admire (modesty, for example) aren’t ones we select for; and
  4. Being authentic is important, but leaders also need to be good actors (since we’re always going to be affected by the roles and situations we’re in). Authenticity is about being true to your own inner self — but leaders need to be true not to themselves, but to what others around them need them to be.

SmartCompany attended the Future of Work conference as a guest.

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im lost
im lost
3 years ago

Rubbish Tesla & Edison did quite well with no HR management around micromanaging