The last few weeks have been very busy working on a huge cultural transformation project for a major global business, (and a weeks holiday) so apologies if you missed a few posts. Inevitably the nexus of cultural transformation rests on leadership. Leadership defines culture.
Whether this is done through conscious choices about the desired culture and the style of leadership required to achieve it, or through taking unconscious choices and just ending up with a culture, the culture is still defined by leadership.
Who are the leaders? How do they behave? What behaviour is tolerated? What behaviour is encouraged? How are people motivated? Who is recruited? Who is retained? Who is disciplined? Who leaves and why? These are just some of the choices that leaders make that define the culture of an organisation.
Like the Costa Concordia sinking a few years ago, the Spanish railways are seeking to place the blame for a disastrous accident on an individual. It is entirely impossible that this individual was fully responsible for the accident. Who hired them? Who trained them? Who set the reward structure? Who set and communicated the rules and the sanctions? Just as it is nearly impossible to claim all of the credit for anything it is equally impossible to apportion all of the blame to an individual.
Unless leadership are able to see their complicity in failures as well as successes, they will not be able to learn and will always be vulnerable to the next failure as well as finding it difficult to repeat success.
Recently I was very struck by a TED talk by Eric Li. In the talk Eric challenges our assumptions about the advantages and disadvantages of the Chinese and democratic political systems. In order to be a leader at the top of the Chinese political system, the aspirant has to have started at the bottom. They have to have proved themselves at multiple levels, starting at the community or village level and working their way slowly through the ranks, the numbers being filtered and reduced on merit at each promotion. Those who get to the top of the system are highly experienced and skilled administrators and leaders.
By contrast in a democratic system, the most important skill in getting to the top is electability – not leadership or administration. In the UK at least there is almost complete separation between local government and national government, serving on a local council is not a required step on the way to high office. Imagine if it were – if aspiring MPs had to serve 5 years in local government before they were allowed to stand for national government.
What we suffer in business and in government are not failures of the system – capitalism or democracy, but failures of leadership. I remember that there used to be a debate about whether leadership could be taught, or whether it was innate. My view today is that it has to be taught. What we think of as innate leaders, far to often are narcissists, who are always willing to put themselves forward and make decisions, because that is what narcissists do, and the rest of us let them.
Leadership, especially great leadership, is a skill. It requires deep self knowledge and the humility to care for, empower, follow and recognise others. It also requires considerable drive, courage and an ability to listen and communicate well. It can be learnt and it should be taught at all levels of our society. Leadership is not a skill for an elite few, but an essential, core skill for anyone willing to embrace it. We all make the choice to lead or not in a number of different situations every day, imagine the difference if we felt confident to decide to lead in more of those situations.
If you think this is helpful – please share it as widely as you can. A world with great leaders would be a better place.
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