Where are Our Leaders Coming From?

We have a big problem with Leadership. It is that we do not have sufficiently sophisticated or reliable systems for identifying and appointing people into leadership roles. Or, we do have the systems, but we choose not to use them. The result is that too many people are given leadership responsibility when they are ill-suited to the role; doing a disservice to them and damaging the people and institutions they lead.

This is happening in all walks of life though the underlying reasons are somewhat different. Political leadership, for instance, has been hijacked by failing democratic processes that are openly manipulated and influenced by foreign and wealthy players. Under the pretence of democracy, narcissists and megalomaniacs who have no understanding of moral obligation or appreciation of public service are bred into positions of power; placed there by people with rich pockets and personal ambitions that have nothing to do with social responsibility. That’s why we have seen such a woeful coterie of global leaders stumbling their way onto the scene and perversely gaining some popularity. This isn’t a situation that is replicated in every country, offering us some hope and a template for how things could be different…if only we had the leaders prepared to walk away from the greedy geese that lay the golden eggs for them, or even recognise that they’ve been bought.

In industry, the problems are slightly different. There may always be dynasties where generation after generation of the same family or clan rise to rule the roost, but more common is a system that produces a raft of homogeneous leaders (mostly white, male, middle-to-upper class) whose only claim to the throne of leadership is the fact that they look and act like all the other leaders in their organisation. It can be hard to tell them apart in some organisations: all brash, go-getting, super-confident, craving significance, and able to string a few pithy sentences together when called upon to do so. The trouble is, that these may not be the leaders we need, but they model themselves on the leaders around them, and draw attention to themselves by being most like them.

Fixing democracies and the way political leaders buy their way to the top or are bought by other more powerful shadowy regimes, is perhaps too big a nut to crack in this article. There are signs of change, but it will be slow. However, fixing the way we prepare people to assume leadership roles in industry is much simpler and within our grasp if we have the collective will to do so.

The debate continues to rage as to whether leaders are born or made. But the answer to the question is often based on a simple and singular idea of what a leader is. We look at someone and judge whether they are leader material based on a model of leadership that is probably outdated, ineffective and inappropriate for the needs of the time. Some of the best leaders emerge in times of crisis, emerging from the shadows having never been in the spotlight. That’s because they possess the qualities that the situation demands. They would ordinarily never have been thought of for high office. But we shouldn’t have to wait for crisis situations to take a punt on a different type of leader.

There isn’t a singular personality profile for a leader. They can be quiet or loud, regulated or spontaneous, detail-focused or visionary. They can be white, black or of mixed heritage. They can come from a wealthy and privileged background or a poor and disadvantaged one. They can have gone to private school or a public one. They can be male, female or gender neutral. They can be L G B T or Q. They can worship a God, a Prophet, a Jedi or no-one. They can be academically brilliant or average. They can have qualifications coming out of their ears or have barely scraped through high school. They can be young or old. Of small stature or large. Possess one leg or two...or none. They can like rugby or football or baseball or hockey. They can support Liverpool, Barcelona or Inter Milan. They can prefer art over science, or vice versa. They can even like both. Not one of these things will determine how successful they might be as a leader, so none of these things should be the criteria for choosing them.

I’m sick of looking out across boards and seeing a load of middle-aged white men staring back at me. I say this as one of those middle-aged white men myself. That’s not to doubt their competence, but it makes me wonder how many alternatives were passed over because they didn’t fit the desired look. We’ve allowed outdated views of what leaders look like, and our unconscious bias, to dictate our leader choices; creating copies rather than accessing rich diversity. I’ve worked with many leaders throughout my career and, not surprisingly, many of them have been white men. Of these, many have been great, so this isn’t a bit of man-bashing going on here. I’ve also worked with leaders of colour and leaders who are women, and a slightly higher proportion of these have been great as well.

So, lets get serious about supporting a more diverse group of people to take on leadership roles. Let’s look at their attitudes, their behaviours, their values and principles. Let’s assess their credibility and ability to bring people with them. Let’s focus on people who don’t crave power but feel a sense of duty towards their colleagues and communities. Let’s appoint people into leadership roles who have relatable experiences to the people they lead, and a deeper understanding of the issues they face. Lets look for people who demonstrate emotional intelligence. Let’s take a punt on a few people who don’t fit the traditional bill.

Trust is at an all-time low across the world. Global employee disengagement levels are woefully high (between 74% and 92% according to the Bersin report). So, it’s really time to get serious about the people we put into leadership roles, because these are the people with the ability to change this narrative and create a better future.

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