Lessons in leadership

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.

Please share your ideas, comment and discuss here – click on the blog title and scroll to the bottom to find the comment box.

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Neil Crofts
authentic business
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About Neil Crofts

Writer, coach and consultant on authentic business and authentic leadership. Neil has inspired and motivated hundreds organisations and thousands of individuals to their highest potential. Neil has written three published books and numerous e-books. Neil is a coach, facilitator and consultant helping people and businesses find their authentic purpose and use it to inspire and motivate them to be everything that they can be. Neil has raced cars, been self-employed, run a company and sold it, been employed by large companies, experienced growth and contraction at the heart of the dotcom boom, tried changing companies from the inside and from the outside as European Head of Strategy at internet consultancy/rock band Razorfish. Neil has been independent for over 10 years and delivered his Authentic Leadership message to a diverse range of business audiences including people at BP, Shell, Microsoft, Kraft Foods, MSN, Jamie Oliver, South Gloucestershire Council, National Blood Transfusion Service, KaosPilots Business School, Fashion company By Malene Birger, German technology company Eleven.
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4 Responses to Lessons in leadership

  1. Andrew Gray says:

    Great post Neil- full of insight, as ever. I agree- the most successful clients I work with nurture their “babies” through the ranks to management/leadership positions over several years. Experienced high-level recruits struggle to fit in and often undermine the delicate cultural balance.

  2. Peter Lachecki says:

    Hi Neil – very stimulating podcast. Competence is a hugely important part of great leadership – but this post reminds us also how important seeking (and recognising) contrary perspectives is in leading the way. Looking at things in ways others don’t can be inspirational and supports leadership excellence, in all types of organisational environments. This is an important theme in much of my consultancy work and can be very uncomfortable for some people!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Neil Crofts says:

      A question I often ask leaders is how good are you at recruiting, retaining and supporting people who are different to you? Not just visibly different, but also invisibly different. People who think and relate differently to the way you do? If you are an analytical thinker, how good are you with blue sky thinkers – or vice versa?

      • Peter Lachecki says:

        If you genuinely believe as a leader that your personal success is inextricably linked with the quality and diversity of your team and what it delivers, then this is easier to manage. It also requires a deep self confidence that you can supply the leadership context that you don’t need to supply all the answers yourself. Leading such a team is challenging but highly rewarding!

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