The problems in leadership won’t have escaped you.
They’re all around – from Oxfam and the Catholic Church in the not-for-profit world, to Bernie Madoff, Libor-rigging, and Volkswagen in the private sector.
What do all these have in common? Was it a lack of information? No – in the age of data, all these organisations knew of the problems. The evidence abounded. Was it a lack of experience? No – these were all experienced, trusted players.
Rather, these leadership failures are down to a lack of imagination on two counts.
First, on behalf of us. We could not – did not want to – believe that someone like a priest, in charge of the spiritual wellbeing of others, could stoop to this level; that a charity worker would ever dream of exchanging aid for sex; that the people’s car company would ever deceive the people about how much pollution its vehicles caused.
Second, the perpetrators knew what they were doing was wrong. They continued, however, because they never imagined that they could be discovered (or if they were, that they could be prosecuted).
They were wrong. And now the spotlight is on leadership like never before. Leaders – in business, politics, the charity sector, and everywhere else – are under the microscope. What we expect of our leaders is evolving, and so are our views of what leadership even is.
In these changing times and amid such intense scrutiny, how does leadership adapt? Three major responses are required.
First, stop putting your faith in the single, infallible (often male) leader. The psychologist and professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic has written a book called Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). Read it, and embrace his advice for how to stop correlating their confidence with their competence.
Second, we need to stop blindly following predictions. Modern leadership is not about predicting one outcome, it’s about preparing for all outcomes. So much of this “drill-down” analysis ignores “look-across” lateral thinking.
Analysis is important, of course, but it’s just much more effective when combined with parenthesis.
Finally, we need to have greater diversity in our leadership groups. When we do this, we gain a broader coalition of skills, a greater range of interests and concerns, wider contacts, different perspectives.
Sure, leadership still needs to decide, but it also needs to learn to speak last, if at all.
This is no longer just a matter of social justice, but of business efficiency, too. The price of not changing is too great. Society currently runs the risk of an entire generation not only losing faith in their leaders, but losing faith in the entire system.
Capitalism, like it or not, has been remarkably successful at ridding the world of poverty. Yes, there are problems with inequality and other externalities, but within a democratic system, capitalism remains highly successful at raising living standards and prosperity.
But if our leaders don’t step up and learn how to change with the times, headline scandals risk undermining the entire system, at an unimaginable cost.
So if we want to improve our leadership, it comes down to us learning to concentrate less on the “leader” and more on the “ship”. Leadership isn’t something that just happens behind closed doors in boardrooms and cabinets. It’s for all of us.
You’ll find more fiscal planning, HR and logistics in a single-parent household than in many boardrooms.
So how do you become a better leader? Stop making it about you. Make it about us.
Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren are the authors of The Leadership Lab and winners of Business Book of the Year 2019. Entries for The Business Book Awards 2020 open in June. Find out more at businessbookawards.co.uk