Perceptions of leadership: changing the record

Perceptions of leadership: changing the record

Recently, I read an interesting article that started me thinking about the messages we send out to our children concerning what it is to be a manager. I was thinking too, or perhaps worrying, that in spite of herculean efforts on the part of many ‘experts’ to change the perception of what it takes to be a good manager, we seem to be failing to convey a more enlightened message than the one that prevailed at the beginning of the Industrial Age.

The article, written by Hal Gregersen for Businessweek.com is entitled, What do managers do at work?

Gregerson and his colleague, Warner Woodworth, collected data from 1000 children between the ages of five and 18 years old. When asked: “What do managers do at work?” the responses fell into these board categories:

  • 55% said managers control people’s actions at work, making sure they do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it
  • 39% said managers fix problems at work, any problem (and more often than not, they fix every problem)
  • 6% said managers develop people’s capabilities by coaching them to become better at what they do
  • Less than 1% said managers understand and serve customer needs
  • Less than 1% said managers make a profit for their companies

While I don’t think the sample size here can wholly represent the perceptions of all children in the five to 18 age range, it appears that among these 1000 children, the perception of management remains largely entrenched in a command and control model. And that is worrying enough to talk about.

For me, it begs the question: What must we do to change the record, to make sure upcoming generations of organisational leaders have the opportunity to think differently about the work of leadership and management long before they even get their first job?

It’s a big question. I don’t have the answer – just a thought for now, which is this:

Changing the way we talk about our own work experience might provide an opportunity for the next generation to think about work differently, not necessarily how it is, but how it could be or how we want it to be.

If we think young people are not listening when we talk about our jobs, our bosses, or our employees, we would be wrong. That means our experiences around leadership, control, problem solving, idea-generation, diversity etc. are, almost always, passed along and absorbed.

So, here are a few questions to ask ourselves that might help us to think differently; to change the conversation and, perhaps too, the perception of what a good manager does at work:

  • What kind of boss would I like my daughter or son to be?
  • In what way can I champion a positive and collaborative leadership model?
  • What opportunities might I provide now that will help my children develop 21st-century leadership skills?
  • What kind of role model am I?

The novelist Alan Keightley said: “Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to.”

With that in mind, I assert that our children do not have to experience organisational life in the same way so many of us do, or have done. But, for a new vision of leadership to fully emerge, we have to start by breaking old patterns… and changing the record.

Fortunately, there is some evidence of this happening. Take a moment to watch this video of children discussing the topic of leadership.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

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