Leadership alternatives for 2013

Thursday, 10 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Leaders should focus on various aspects of leadership depending on the macro and micro environments. Economic, social and political realities should be taken into account in selecting a leadership style for a particular environment. Sri Lanka is no exception. What type of leadership style should we consider for 2013?

There is no single leadership style. Herein lies the excitement and power of leadership. Yes, it is true – the excitement to see a team blossom. Likewise, poor leadership can destroy the excitement of a team just like you crumple a blooming flower.

With the modest economic outlook for 2013, there will be challenges in a number of sectors. Downsizing, rightsizing and future proofing will gather momentum as the growth figures decline. Most of the countries have made downward adjustments to their 2013 and 2014 forecasts. Long-awaited recovery in the US and Europe is benign and there is very little room for public sector and private sector mistakes.

The recent mantra for economic malaise has been domestic spending largely driven by massive infrastructure projects. But, as we have learnt from the post 2008 GFC period, throwing money at problems does not make problems go away. Instead, they defer critical decisions and problems just compound. Moreover, this time round there is very little money to throw around.

2013 will remain one of the most challenging years in recent history as there is very little room to spend our way out of an economic crisis. Hence the leadership challenge is to motivate teams to perform in a sluggish environment with modest financial rewards.

What are the leadership alternatives available for 2013?


Why human side?

Famous management guru Douglas McGregor spoke of interconnected economies and the human side of organisations. Today we have an interconnected world of bits and bytes, wired societies and real-time businesses.

Competitors can knock each other off quicker than ever before and this has made the human side of enterprise more important than ever before. While technological advancement has been put forward as the lethal competitive weapon, without teams working in harmony to deliver superior results, technology itself cannot deliver results.

The real leadership challenge today is to create environments that result in true collaboration throughout the organisations and harness the full potential of human capital. There is very little room for silos and passing the buck as these will disrupt the systems of the interconnected world.

Increasingly companies are finding that the sustainable competitive advantage they are striving for rests within their human capital and thus the mental and physical health of human capital has become the key driver of competitiveness.

To humanise the workplace you need humans with empathy, compassion and passion. Ego driven selfish human beings are unlikely to be successful in this interconnected world as they tend to have an “I know it all” approach.


Innovation and productivity

After the industrial revolution the focus was on productivity and efficiency. Capital was invested in updating machines to improve productivity and quality. Today, technological advantage can quickly be imitated and the lead is taken by companies that continuously reinvent and innovate what they produce.

Machines do not innovate but people do. And, this is where the team performance becomes critical for corporate survival and progress.

For example, many companies manufacture computers and some have their own plants. But Dell offers computers custom made to customers’ needs – on demand computers. This innovation is driven by seamless supply chains managed by creative teams. Another example is the airline industry. United Airlines and Singapore Airlines have access to similar technology (aircraft) but Singapore Airlines deliver a better service to receive award after award.

Again it is motivated teams that deliver results not necessarily the most expensive machines. The ability of companies to motivate and inspire employees to maintain human relationships with customers becomes the core driver of growth and profitability.

Feedback – art or science?

Feedback is a key tool of leaders but how many are good at it? Let us look at some real life examples.

Tony, a young graduate trainee with a large banking group was continuously subjected to increasing pressure by his manager who, according to his colleagues, was a “nice person” in social gatherings etc. Even the trainee acknowledges that the manager was nice socially as a person. But he continued to blame the trainee for things he was not accountable for.

Inaccuracies in monthly accounts were blamed on the trainee. The manager’s view was you should know and you should fix. But errors were well beyond the trainee’s control. They stemmed from other divisions but the manager did not want to accept that. Ultimately, the trainee resigned due to “highly toxic” environment and the bank was left without a person to do the reporting during the Christmas period.

Sam, with barely two years experience after graduation, after weeks of over 12-hour work days with an ever increasing work load, faces a performance review with two managers. One is his direct supervisor and the other is the divisional head. During the review the divisional head lashes out, “you are in the s***, you have no remorse, we don’t care about your postgraduate studies”. And, the staff member burst into tears. Unable to manage the stress and despair he resorts to counselling.

Did the poor performing staff member improve his performance? No, things got worse and he resorted to stress leave. Often managers are promoted to leadership roles without appropriate leadership skills. Management is not Leadership. Moreover, leaders get carried away with their “projects” often ignoring their leadership responsibilities. Leader’s prime responsibility is to lead.

Let’s look at another example from academia – two campuses offering business degrees. First campus had an autocratic manager and the second had an empathetic leader. The autocratic manager was highly qualified with higher degrees and research publications to his name.

The second campus had an experienced leader with servant-leadership style. At end of term functions she was the first to serve food to students and staff alike. Over the years the second campus has attracted more students and received a number of awards while the first with an autocratic manager has experienced continuous decline.

The autocratic manager created a toxic environment and the good lecturers (customer facing staff) went elsewhere. The message is simple. Academia or business, human side of leadership is the key to superior team performance. This is even true in today’s bits and bytes world.


Toxic leadership

Over the last three decades in a number of large corporations I have experienced many leadership styles. One of the most lethal leadership styles is toxic leadership. These leaders do not even realise that they are toxic to their teams. They are always right and they like to feed their ego. They can cause enormous damage to teams and even divisions before they depart or get fired.

Almost all toxic leaders I have observed lack human side of leadership. They are all about “them” rather than “us”. Left unchecked they can cause destruction during a short period. The challenge for top managers is to identify early the potential damage a toxic leader can cause.

Some corporations go as far as to sideline toxic leaders and give them “special projects” just to avoid the potential damages to teams and corporations. One bank sidelined a toxic leader and allocated “special projects” for two years until he decided to leave. They found it better to keep him on payroll for years but not allow him to destroy the teams he was responsible for.

Toxic leaders need careful assessment and coaching. Since they do not know (or accept) that they have a problem it is a challenge to coach them.


Mantra for 2013

So, what should be the mantra for 2013? In a tough economic environment there will be enough anxiety and pain. Leaders will have to ‘own up’ to their shortcomings and lead with dignity, respect and empathy. Tensed and fragile teams will need it.

Toxic leaders will have no place unless and until they ‘own up’ to their shortcomings and transform themselves. To do this they must listen and pay attention to what others think, feel and have to say. Likewise, staff subject to toxic leadership should learn to effectively communicate problems to senior HR practitioners and learn to manage their own stress levels.

Young staff members often resort to resigning to get out of the toxic environment. Often, this is not a good solution because they may come across another toxic leader in their next job.

2013 will be a year to truly recognise the human side of leadership and that, in turn, will benefit the leaders and their teams alike.

(The writer is Director of Agape International and can be reached via email s.yahanpath@agapei.com. He is also the founder of www.totalwealthplan.com and a visiting lecturer at Sydney Business School and CQ University, Sydney.)