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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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Today, either everyone is a leader, or nobody is
Article Type: Strategic commentary From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 8, Issue 5
Thought leaders share their views on the HR profession and its direction for the future
Javier BajerJavier Bajer is the Founding CEO of The Talent Foundation.
These days, almost every other article ends with a few infallible tips on how to successfully lead through the current crisis. Instead, I want to refer to what has clearly become an even more profound and thorny crisis – the crisis of leadership.
Over the last few years we have been “developing” leaders in the wrong way. We have spent massive budgets trying to create high performing teams and cultures, by selecting and focusing on the few. Alas, most investments failed to provide sound business results, did not manage to create the promised “best work environments” and did not help attract the right kind of talent to our ranks. We wanted client centricity, collaboration, integrity, innovation and growth. Instead, what did we get? Trust in leaders is at its lowest point in history, employee loyalty is mostly bound by the promise of reward handshakes and workforce engagement is getting mistakenly accounted for by what is actually attachment to jobs. Today, even business schools acknowledge having failed to develop the right leaders for society. With a few exemptions, organizations are experiencing serious misalignments between what they believe, what they intend, what they promise and what they actually do. The costs are obvious and pervasive.
We deploy new initiatives hoping that somehow this time they will work out. We organize consultations and surveys, as if just having the right list of items is going to easily drive a solution to the organization’s problems. We end up with yet another communication campaign, often including branded posters, screensavers and webcasts from the “top guys.” People are getting change saturation and don’t even have the time to open the emails where the new values, vision or culture are being “announced.”
1 Re-thinking leadership
The problem is that we have been using a “scarcity model” by which a few are called leaders and hold the responsibility for making it all work. According to that model, leadership would “cascade” down the organization, somehow translating vision and values into the right keystrokes and syllables along the way. This approach worked in the past, but at a time when most organizations need to seriously upgrade their cultures and embrace the biggest changes in their demographic fabric, it is imperative that we re-think what we mean by leadership.
According to the bi-polar scarcity model that most of us grew up with, there are “leaders and followers” – those who make it and those who want it – and the “best and the rest” – those who rate on one side of the performance curve and those who fall off the curve. In today’s new world, we can no longer endorse that old paradigm (sorry for the choice of word). Leadership is a competence that everyone in an organization should have and continuously develop. We simply cannot afford to put all the responsibility of an organization’s future on the shoulders of a few.
2 Everyone is a leader
So, let me offer you a new definition for leadership, which you might find more suitable for today’s context. Looking at the origin of the word leader ∼ ship (from the old English Loedan: to move/to change and the old German word Schaeffen: related to something of value), leadership is the “ability to generate changes to add value.” Leadership has to do with one’s ability to change things in order to make them better, sometimes because it is part of our jobs, some other times because we just care to make a difference. Leadership has little to do with hierarchy, number of reports, age, background or even experience. Leadership does not require empowerment – it feeds on commitment. It is stopped by fear and released by passion. Leadership applies to all areas of our lives, especially those in which we do not feel very comfortable – those are the situations where there is a need to generate changes to add value. That is exactly the space for leadership.
In today’s world, we must – at least – attempt to develop leadership cultures where everyone in an organization is actively working together to create changes and add value. We cannot wait for this to come “from the top,” as cascades are slow and messy, behaving often like ‘Chinese whispers’ guessing games where each individual re-interprets and embellishes when their turn comes.
Do not for a second think I am suggesting an anarchic model to run our organizations. We still need great bosses, of course; bosses who – like the rest of the pyramid – are amazing leaders and people who are driven by their commitment and not by their attachments. Ultimately, we need to develop men and women who are comfortable when it comes to being the bosses of many, many leaders.
About the author
Javier Bajer works closely with the boards of global organizations such as Shell, Accenture, Hewlett-Packard, The Economist and HSBC, helping them develop leadership at scale and re-engaging their workforces. In 1998 he became the founding CEO of The Talent Foundation, the international network of businesses and academia created to find concrete answers to the challenge of unlocking human talent at scale. Javier Bajer can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org