Leadership Have We Really Got It

Just Another Trend?

Are we merely paying lip service to leadership in business?

Is it just another over-hyped management fashion trend that is now shuffling towards the trash heap of so many other previous failed fads?

Business bookshelves are overflowing with leadership titles, there’s a never-ending flood of business newspaper and magazine articles on the subject, and leadership conventions, conferences and seminars are a dime a dozen. So why even ask this question? Because it’s time to face the reality: we’re still not getting much better at leadership.

Here’s a question: If leadership in the last 10 years had improved in line with the amount we’ve talked about it, and if we’re really ‘getting it’ in the practice of true leadership, then why have an average of 80 CEOs been fired every month for the past two years? Here’s another: How much of the business success in the new economy boom was attributable to great leadership and how much was due to do businesses simply being in the right place at the right time?

The sobering challenge to business in the new millennium is that, because we’re not getting better at it, leadership is at risk of being perceived as “yesterday’s news,” like many other management approaches before it such as empowerment and re-engineering.

New management methods that finish up reeking in the corporate dumpster do so for one common reason: their implementation falls far short of the promises madeOr, put more colloquially, the kiss of death is when management don’t walk their own talk.

Where’s the Leadership?

Current leadership books, articles and interviews share a common theme: that business and society desperately need better leadership, now more than ever. But most people still don’t seem to understand what leadership really is. From the boardroom to the mailroom the belief is that leadership is a level in the hierarchy. The truth is that no organizational title confers leadership. All that management titles do is put people in positions in which they are expected to exercise leadership.

Leadership is not a position. Rather it is a values-driven way of behaving, regardless of hierarchical positionMany virtues of great leadership have become part of pop vocabulary — words like visionary, inspirational, motivator, coach, communicator, mentor, nurturer, energizer and more — but it’s time to ask how many corporate leaders actually live all of these attributes in their role every single day?

In my seminars, when I ask participants to name active business people who embody true leadership attributes, there is often silence, followed by tentative suggestions like… Jack Welch?… Bill Gates?… Michael Eisner? What’s interesting is that even names like these don’t get a consensus agreement.

The fact is that great leaders are a precious few, despite the powerful benefits that great leadership delivers to the company, to customers, to employees, to shareholders and to business partners. There may be no better example than Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines to clearly illustrate what truly inspired leadership means to the performance of a company from top to bottom — even in a tough industry in very tough times, Southwest’s unique culture results in it continuing to perform better than all its competitors. But who and where are the other Herb Kellehers today?

The Leadership Crisis

In my recent work I’ve encountered a growing number of top business people, both executives and consultants, who are frustrated by the absence of leadership today. They acknowledge that management has learned much of the new leadership jargon, and that they widely preach its attributes to employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers. But the deep concern they voice is that, once again, we’re seeing that management walk is out of step with management talk.

They point, with some justification, to the actions of too many executives being driven by the imperatives of short-term financial targets, cost cutting, productivity gains and, worst of all, greedy self-interest in trying to influence stock value for personal gain.

And despite all their swashbuckling, egalitarian image, it is sad to note that many “new economy” executives were even more selfish in their conduct of their roles than those in the bricks-and-mortar companies that they held in such open contempt.

If the cynics are even part-way right, we are at a make-or-break point in the evolution of real leadership in business today. Despite all the talk about leadership, we’ve done a lousy job in making great leadership a fundamental requirement of business. We’ve done an equally bad job in communicating what leadership really is — and then acting on leadership values.

We will never enjoy the powerful long-term growth and profitability outcome of true leadership culture if we don’t narrow the gap between what we say and what we do. Starting now.

What’s Needed

There are two key agenda items that every aspiring leader urgently needs to address:

  1. Do a better job combining short-term business goals and long-term leadership values. It is not a choice that you EITHER meet quarterly financial targets OR you provide great leadership. You can’t run a business successfully for very long by only focusing on one quarterly report after another, any more than you can succeed by focusing just on great leadership attributes and ignoring the need to generate results along the way. The two are NOT mutually exclusive, even though many seem to see them that way.Whether you’re a corporate executive or you own your own business, or anything in between, it is imperative that you do two things: secure short-term viability by achieving financial targets, and build long-term growth through effective leadership.
  2. Create a better understanding of what leadership really is. We have to do a much better job of differentiating the terms “leadership” and “management.” Leadership is all about behavior, about values and morals and ethics, about vision — seeing things from a fresh perspective — it’s about creating a culture and, most of all, about creating inspiration that others want to follow. Management is about authority and about doing things, it’s about making things happen and about getting results. Every organization already has management; what too few organizations have is leadership.Because so many people think “top management” when they hear the word “leadership,” we have to change the language. Its time we started using the word leadership ONLY to describe people who actually LEAD, not those who occupy the top spots in the hierarchy but act without any of the attributes of real leadership.

The Time is Now

We need more than a few great leaders — we need a world of great leadership. We need a culture in which true leadership is not only demanded, but is recognized, rewarded and celebrated.

The drive to great business leadership faces a tough uphill battle. Powerful forces are aligned against it, like the high “mortality rate” of CEO’s, short-term incentive laden CEO remuneration packages, and the relentless pressure from investors for immediate results at any cost. Today’s new CEO may get 8 quarters (or less) to deliver results — so how many of them are likely to commit to developing a strong leadership culture? Most won’t even try.

Let’s face it, for as long as business is obsessed with short-term results and not real growth in asset value, leadership will be under pressure. We see executives talking about leadership virtues because that’s the jargon du jour. Yet the management style that they implement may bear very little resemblance to those same values.

Here’s the challenge and the threat: if the actions of leaders don’t match the promises they make, before too long, leadership may well join Empowerment and Re-engineering in the garbage dump as yet another discredited management approach — with incalculable damage to future business and economic growth prospects.

Despite short-term business management pressures, business desperately needs real leadership to guide it through the fastest changing times we have ever known. Without leadership, companies will lose their direction, their purpose and ultimately, their ability to stay in existence.

We’ve never needed leadership more than we need it now. Our quest for leadership is in an “Apollo 13 scenario”: Failure is not an option.

Hugh Coppen  is a Vistage speaker and president of Winning Leadership, Inc. He is a three-time CEO who specializes in leadership and change management through seminars, public speaking and publications.

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