Real Leaders

The Solution to Leadership Failure

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

An earlier post produced a huge and thoughtful response from many senior leaders around the world. Responses confirm that leaders are having a difficult time getting the right things done on a timely basis in this time of ferocious competition. Several responses also brought up new challenges that I will deal with in future blogs. One of the biggest questions arose from my assertion that attempts to train business leaders are failing. After all, it’s a pretty big statement given the thousands of business schools that are trying to teach business leaders around the globe. The problem is business schools and companies are still training business leaders to succeed in hierarchies.

Organizations where things get done through chains of command. These are organizations where critical knowledge is often centralized. Resources are hoarded and defended. Annual planning cycles lock people into priorities that quickly become irrelevant in the face of new competitive threats.

The complexity of these large cumbersome organizations create bureaucracies that makes simple tasks and changes virtually impossible.

For instance more and more new clients are asking if I take credit cards. They want to know because the procurement processes are so broken that it takes weeks or months to contract with new suppliers. This locks them into into old suppliers with old ideas and tired solutions. And change that takes weeks or months is a timeline left over from the industrial age. That’s a leadership problem. Oh and one more thing…

most employees don’t want to work for their employers.

We know that because 80% of people who currently have jobs are actively looking for a new job on the Internet. And Gallop just finished its worldwide engagement survey and once again found that over 70% of workers are not committed to their organization’s goals.

The primary reason for that is that goals employees feel ineffective in their work. It’s too difficult to succeed when people’s goals are constantly shifting. Employees feel exhausted from relentless stress caused from having highly demanding jobs with low control and autonomy. Again, it’s just too hard to get things done. And the majority of employees find their work intrinsically meaningless… yet work is way too demanding for it to be purposeless.

Those are leadership problems. They are big, sweaty, stinky problems. These are not problems that can be overcome by getting 20% better at one leadership competency or targeting high potential leaders to go through a year-long program.

We simply don’t have time to develop the new leadership competencies needed one leader at a time.

So this is what I did. Five years ago, at the onset of the great recession I started a research project with students from the University of California San Diego and Clemson University School of Business. We named it Apple to Zappos. We set out to discover what leaders of persistently successful organizations were doing differently than everyone else.

I interviewed top executives of the best performing companies ranging from Apple to IBM to Nike to Zappos. We looked at seven criteria – growth, profitability, innovation, employee engagement social responsibility, sustainability, and brand power. We also examined best leader practices research from Teresa Amabile who is the Director of Research at Harvard Business School. I spent a year working closely with Joe Folkman of Zenger-Folkman doing a deep dive on their Extraordinary Leader research. We analyzed global research studies from Towers-Watson, McKinsey and Company and several others. This was my conclusion.

Success creates successful behaviors. Leaders perform badly when they are failing. Employees perform poorly when they are consistently unable to achieve goals.

Put simply, leadership success, employee success and business success are united in a continuous virtuous cycle. Once that cycle turns downward… leaders get worse pushing the business down faster and faster while pushing their employees to continuous failure.

It is the primary job of business leaders to make it easy for their employees to succeed… that’s what creates business success.

I know, it’s simple. Yet few leaders get this and even fewer know how to do it. So as I work in the war zone of 21st century, helping companies who are fighting to stay relevant, profitable and growing I had to come up with something that was simply different than traditional leadership development. The result is something I simply call 5-STAR.

It’s based on the finding that winning behavior in extraordinary organizations comes down to five things. Leaders and their teams must be…

  1. Focused
  2. Creative
  3. Collaborative
  4. Fast acting
  5. Constantly improving

Simple but not easy. This is not easy because people tend to be either both focused and fast acting or creative and collaborative. It’s yin and yang. This creates natural tension. For instance in most organizations senior leaders are goal-focused and action- driven. Their implicit belief is that value is created by fast and flawless execution.

But that’s only partly true. If you get really fast at doing things customers don’t value you simply accelerate failure.

There is another large group in most organizations that are purpose-driven innovators. They are motivated to create new value. Value that really matters to people. They like to create and collaborate. They always have questions and their questions slow things down. This drives the focused-doers crazy. The reality is, for an organization to work, you need both yin and yang. But you won’t drive business teamwork by going to a tepee and sweating together.

Our research of persistently great companies shows they create teamwork by winning together. As I thought about the challenge of coming up with fast ways to transform leadership and culture I began to experiment with training teams in a leadership process that didn’t demand individual change.

My premise is if you just follow the process you will start to win. Every team member will get engaged… and that will fuel a winning balance of focus and creativity and collaboration and action that drives continuous improvement… value, growth and profits.


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