Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

One hears, more and more, in cautious, somewhat reluctant, but worried tones, people coming around to say out loud what worries them – there are no leaders anymore.

Some seven or so years ago, one of the smartest executives in our network, a European, told me with definitive certainty: “Everyone knows we are living at the end of an age, that a new age is coming.  But no one knows what the next age will bring, so everyone does today only what they did yesterday.”

In my inbox a few days ago, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company sent tips on leadership from one of their reports of 9 years ago.  It was titled Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters, written by Claudio Feser, Fernanda Mayol and Ramesh Srinivasan.

Based on a survey of 81 organizations operating in Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America, in agriculture, consulting, energy, government, insurance, mining and real estate and sized from 7,500 to 300,000 employees, they reported that “the secret to developing effective leaders is to encourage four types of behaviors.”

They wrote:

Earlier McKinsey research has consistently shown that good leadership is a critical part of organizational health, which is an important driver of shareholder returns.

A big, unresolved issue is what sort of leadership behavior organizations should encourage.  Is leadership so contextual that it defies standard definitions or development approaches?  Should companies now concentrate their efforts on priorities such as role modeling, making decisions quickly, defining visions and shaping leaders who are good at adapting?  Should they stress the virtues of enthusiastic communication?  In the absence of any academic or practitioner consensus on the answers, leadership-development programs address an extraordinary range of issues, which may help explain why only 43 percent of CEOs are confident that their training investments will bear fruit.

Our most recent research, however, suggests that a small subset of leadership skills closely correlates with leadership success, particularly among frontline leaders.  Using our own practical experience and searching the relevant academic literature, we came up with a comprehensive list of 20 distinct leadership traits.  Next, we surveyed 189,000 people in 81 diverse organizations around the world to assess how frequently certain kinds of leadership behavior are applied within their organizations.  Finally, we divided the sample into organizations whose leadership performance was strong (the top quartile of leadership effectiveness as measured by McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index) and those that were weak (bottom quartile).

What we found was that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior.  These 4, indeed, explained 89 percent of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.

The 20 possible types of leadership behaviors included in the survey were:

-Be supportive.
-Champion desired change.
-Clarify objectives, rewards and consequences.
-Communicate prolifically and enthusiastically.
-Develop others.
-Develop and share a collective mission.
-Differentiate among followers.
-Facilitate group collaboration.
-Foster mutual respect.
-Give praise.
-Keep group organized and on task.
-Make quality decisions.
-Motivate and bring out best in others.
-Offer a critical perspective.
-Operate with strong results orientation.
-Recover positively from failures.
-Remain composed and confident in uncertainty.
-Role model organizational values.
-Seek different perspectives.
-Solve problems effectively.

The 4 optimal leadership behaviors were:

• Solving problems effectively.  The process that precedes decision-making is problem solving, when information is gathered, analyzed and considered.  This is deceptively difficult to get right, yet it is a key input into decision-making for major issues (such as M&A), as well as daily ones (such as how to handle a team dispute).

• Operating with a strong results orientation.  Leadership is about not only developing and communicating a vision and setting objectives, but also following through to achieve results. Leaders with a strong results orientation tend to emphasize the importance of efficiency and productivity and to prioritize the highest-value work.

• Seeking different perspectives.  This trait is conspicuous in managers who monitor trends affecting organizations, grasp changes in the environment, encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, accurately differentiate between important and unimportant issues and give the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns.  Leaders who do well on this dimension typically base their decisions on sound analysis and avoid the many biases to which decisions are prone.

• Supporting others.  Leaders who are supportive understand and sense how other people feel. By showing authenticity and a sincere interest in those around them, they build trust and inspire and help colleagues to overcome challenges.  They intervene in group work to promote organizational efficiency, allaying unwarranted fears about external threats and preventing the energy of employees from dissipating into internal conflict.

The researchers concluded that:

We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant.  Experience shows that different business situations often require different styles of leadership.  We do believe, however, that our research points to a kind of core leadership behavior that will be relevant to most companies today, notably on the front line.  For organizations investing in the development of their future leaders, prioritizing these four areas is a good place to start.

What is startling to me and connected to the growing perception that we have no leaders is that the 20 behaviors associated with leadership did not include any core values or orientation to stakeholders.

To me, these 20 behaviors resonate with “teaming,” with “conversations,” with everyone at the table and no one responsible for anything in particular.

Only “operating with a strong results orientation” smacks of leadership gumption.

What the McKinsey researchers looked at was management, not leadership.  Management is team-centered.  Leadership is values centered and so purpose driven.

Managers perform.  Leaders deliver.  Managers process.  Leaders have courage and take risks. Managers are often substitutable, one for another and expendable.  Leaders are hard to find.

We were warned about mistaking management for leadership by Chester Bernard in 1938 (The Functions of the Executive) and again by Philip Selznick in 1957 (Leadership in Administration).

Maybe it was no accident, but something more systemic, which has bedeviled Boeing and destroyed its capacity for leadership in the manufacture of aircraft.