Part 1 – We must change the way we feel about leadership

July 29, 2017

At the ripening age of 55 I have spent a great deal of time in the last 25 years either in leadership roles or helping people to fulfil their potential in leadership roles. It doesn’t mean I have a better perspective than anyone else, but I am confident in the perspective I have.

For the first time I want to set out how I think concepts of leadership must evolve over the next ten years, including laying foundations relating to purpose, behaviours and measures. If you read my posts you will know that I write mostly about lawyers. This leadership series however is not specifically about lawyers, but about my ideas on leadership more generally.

This Part 1 piece is in effect an introduction to this work. There are then four additional posts to build on all the points I make below. My hope is to reveal in some detail how we should all consider ourselves capable of successfully fulfilling leadership roles by embracing a new sense of what leadership means and through this delivering a far more impactful contribution for our colleagues, our businesses, our families and our communities.

Before I begin I should indicate some of the conscious biases I am likely to reveal.

  • I am convinced we are preoccupied with innovation when we should be preoccupied with adaptability. Generally we are not innovative. We like things to be as we like them. However innovation obviously happens. The key to our success and our well-being is not whether we can be individually innovative, but whether we can adapt when innovation happens.
  • Leadership is not something that is reserved for those with significant status, although this can mean a greater opportunity to influence. Leadership needs to become more a state of mind, a way of thinking and a way of influencing. The less we tie leadership to hierarchy, the more influential we can become.
  • Leadership is also much more about helping people achieve their potential than it is about hitting certain financial/strategic targets. However because we judge leaders by their success and therefore there must be empirical evidence of success, the easiest (laziest) measure is a financial measure, typically shareholder value. I do not think great leadership can be defined by such measures alone. Great leaders do so much more and we must therefore help them by finding the measures that will judge them more thoughtfully and in a more sophisticated way than a vapid rise in stock values. Measuring well-being for example ought to become a key measure of an institution’s attractiveness to new recruits and in the retention of employees.
  • Finally in this list of my conscious biases, leadership must carry an ethical endeavour. We must retain our humanity to be truly successful and therefore we must care for our colleagues, their families, our customers and our communities in a meaningful, measurable and sustainable way if we are to be considered successful leaders. Expediency is not a quality of leadership and never will be again.

There is so much I want to share in the following posts and I look forward to setting out these thoughts in a way that I hope means we can have a genuine debate about what sort of leadership we need and what sort of leaders we must become. I am particularly moved to write these pieces now because I believe leadership has lost its way in three mainstream areas of our society.

In the world of politics our leaders have resorted to slogans and to populist assertion rather than promoting the value of transparent principles guiding evidence-led policy. We have also lost the opportunity to be respectfully critical, so arguments are often based less on reasoned, reasonable discourse and much more on straightforward personal attacks and prejudice.

In the world of business, we have been seduced by short term success and shaped entire corporate strategy so that it is more aligned to stock-market reporting schedules than it is aligned to the needs of our colleagues, our customers and our communities. Short-termism allows a space where we can discard good ideas and good people too quickly. It also encourages a grab for wealth with little heed to heritage, sustainability or community.

In the world of the public sector, we have conflated the idea of market success with the understandable need for efficiency and accountability. However accountability in the public sector must put the needs of the people they serve at the heart of their purpose. Instead we are left with the grim, grinding relentlessness of reducing costs and then allowing accountability for inevitable shortcomings in service to be passed down the line from leaders to front-line staff. It is a shameful, bureaucratic abdication of what leadership truly means.

In all three worlds we have often lost what it means to lead and we are all the poorer for this deficit in every aspect of our lives. Three things have happened as a consequence and these consequences are magnified under the glare from the always judgemental spy-hole that is social media.

The first of these consequences is an unnecessarily high level of unhealthy cynicism where the assumption is that no-one is honourable or able to do the right thing. The second, perversely given the first point, is an over-reliance on easy sounding solutions rather than a willingness to engage with evidence and experts. The third is a propensity to be ever more tribal in outlook. If you are not one of us, you cannot understand us; if you cannot understand us you must be against us. It is a dystopian spiral.

We have reached a point when the cards are stacked against the generations to come. It is harder than at any time since the end of the Second World War to see how the baton will be passed with any expectation that the world will be a better place for our children and grandchildren given our efforts to date.

However I do not consider the situation to be hopeless, indeed far from it. I am very optimistic and positive about the quality of the people I work with every day. It now falls on each of us to own our potential and not to be occupied by our fears.

Having set the scene, I have written four additional posts which explore the following themes building into a comprehensive perspective on leadership:

  • What should be the purpose of leadership today?
  • What do we each have to do to make our leadership contribution?
  • How do we measure the value of our contribution?
  • How do we help each other fulfil our potential to lead?

I very much look forward to sharing these thoughts with you and to hearing your thoughts in return.

Take care. Paul

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