We don’t want to be leaders, but we do want to follow

We don’t want to be leaders, but we do want to follow

We are a nation desperately seeking leadership, and a nation desperately avoiding taking on the task ourselves. There are good reasons for our reluctance, but there is a price to pay for it, too.

Leadership was named as the biggest skills gap facing Australian organisations in the Australian Institute of Management’s Vocational Training Skills Gap Survey, 2012. “That is alarming,” AIM’s acting CEO, Carmel Ackerly, tells LeadingCompany.

In the survey of 1,700 executives and business professionals, leadership skills finished a clear first (named by 45% of participants) ahead of the next most alarming skills gaps: process and project management skills (named by 39%); technical skills (35%); and communication/interpersonal skills (34%).

Similarly, when AIM asked survey participants to name the top skills priorities for individual employees, they said the number one need was for leadership skills (39%) followed by teamwork (35%); and then analytical/strategic thinking (33%).

Lack of leadership comes at the cost. Ackerly names high staff turnover as one measurable impact, but says the intangible impacts can be insidious. “Worse than staff leaving is staff staying. Employee engagement surveys are showing people are more disconnected, but they are hanging around. That turns the workplace culture stale, unproductive and almost cancerous.”

Who is the leader, anyway?

In Australia, the definition of leadership is very narrow, Ackerly says. “People think leadership starts and finishes at CEO’s desk, not that it is something to build across all levels of the company. We put the CEO on the job, get them to set the direction, agree to a certain bottom line, and if they get it wrong, it is all their fault.”

Below the C-suite, managers are not recognised as leaders, says Ackerly. “Managers never get notices for their leadership, they get noticed for the outcome of their leadership. If someone solves a problem and delivers a 10% saving, we celebrate that outcome – which is right – but we should be recognising the way they got there.”

Tall poppies can sink or swim

Managers are very reluctant to step up to the leadership task, Ackerly says, which is perhaps understandable since they will get little reward and recognition for doing so. Participants in courses run by AIM have explained their reluctance. “It is the tall poppy syndrome, it is about mateship: how can I lead a team? It is about not wanting to stand out, about wondering how do they instruct people they used work alongside, about how people are talking about me like I used to talk about my boss.”

On top of this, managers rightly judge that they will be left to their own devices if they accept the leadership challenge. “We don’t ask them how are they coping with being leader; we just ask what they have delivered. We can teach leadership and give them the skills. It can be a lonely spot, so you need to be able to step up and own that spot and say, I am going to take a chance, to recognise these skills.”

Forgiving followers

The good news for those prepared to step up, learn leadership skills, and assume responsibility is that followers will be generous about getting behind them, provided they are open to help. “People are crying out for it. When people say ‘I will lead you. I will take it on’, others will come to you and, if you get it wrong, they’ll say let’s try again. They want the person out the front.The team leader, the company leader and even the country leader.”

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