The New Leadership Challenge

Posted by on May 22, 2009 in Blog | 0 comments

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Well, I say “new” but it’s not really new at all. It’s just a bigger challenge than ever before. Why? Because the world has fallen out of love, not just with big business, but with leadership as we know too. And we don’t need to look much beyond the current global crisis to see why. The population at large have put way too much trust (and money) into the so-called leaders of industry whose decisions and total lack of accountability have placed us in the precarious position we find ourselves in.

And this does not just apply to corporate leadership either. We don’t need to look too far to see how other prominent leaders have let us down. This whole notion of “African democracy” has delivered leaders in our little corner of the world like Rob Mugabe (pun intended), Thabo Mbeki, and George W Bush. OK, George was neither African not really in our corner – but he makes the point just as well as his contemporaries. Isn’t one of the basic tenets of leadership that our leader(s) should leave us in a better position than we were in when they took to office? Nelson Mandela did. If a leader cannot leave with the people who trusted him and who brought him to power in a better position, at least he should leave them in the same position than when he took the lead.
When George W left office in January, he left his country with a war they’re not winning and don’t know how to get out of, the biggest budget deficit in history, manufacturing being lost to Asia, rapidly increasing petrol prices, increasing healthcare costs, borders like sieves, and a middle class facing bankruptcy. Mind you it doesn’t seem too much different to a couple of other countries. Times of greatest crisis demand the greatest leadership. Company leadership is going the same way as political leadership. Executives are demanding ever greater remuneration packages and then fail to deliver.
Don’t get me wrong. Top executives in my mind deserve to be paid top dollar – on the condition that they be held accountable for their decisions. What we see too often is a total lack of accountability. Executives take their fat salaries, share options and benefits. Then their decisions backfire and they leave – with a “golden handshake”. Enron CEO Kenneth Lay cashed in $ 70 million of stock prior to the collapse of Enron, causing employees to lose not only their jobs, but also their pensions! Ken Lay died prior to his sentencing, which is quite convenient for his wife as the case against him was thrown out of court without a conviction and Mrs Lay now has a nice little nest egg. No further news available on those employees who lost everything.
Look at the word used to denote the pinnacle of leadership closely. The word “executive” appears in their title. In my book this means that they are there to do one thing – they need to EXECUTE. Not sitting around, having meetings, discussing, tweaking, brain-storming, strategising and telling their people and the world what they intend doing. They need to go out and do it! Execute! The world does not applaud intention. It applauds action – and the more positive the actions are for everyone, the greater the applause will be. Then, leadership is about taking responsibility when things go wrong. The captain of the Titanic went down with his ship. The captain of the Oceanos went off on the first helicopter leaving his passengers to fend for themselves.
Leadership is not, and should never just be about the guys (and girls) at the top! Leadership is the duty of everyone. Everyone in a company and everyone in society. What we’re seeing though is the exact opposite. People in companies are not holding executives accountable. People in societies are not holding civic leaders accountable. People just seem content to put their heads in the sand – hoping ills will simply disappear. So I think it’s time we all start showing a bit of leadership. It’s all of our responsibility to hold people in positions of power accountable. Time that we all appoint ourselves as leaders in our own lives. Lee Iacocca shares the 9 C’s of leadership. 9 attributes we should be looking for in our leaders. If they don’t have them, they shouldn’t be in leadership positions, but once they’re there – by whatever means they got there – we should be demanding these from them. I want to share my Top 4.
Leaders must show Curiosity. If they are not willing to step out of their comfort zones occasionally to explore new ideas, new methods, new technologies they lack the guts to be a true leader. Their inability to listen to people who may not support them causes them to become safe players. If I were to use a naval analogy, I’d say that ships that never leave the harbour will be safe from high seas and storms. But ships were never built to only anchor in the harbour! Of course, curiosity results in creativity when given wings. Bring on the energy drink!!
Leaders must have Courage. This means that you must take a position you believe in (conviction) and stick with it. No matter how unpopular it may appear. Of course a leader cannot have courage without conviction behind it. This means being committed to what you believe, what you do and what you want to achieve. It’s about deciding what your legacy will be and doing what is required to leave that legacy. Research among residents of retirement centres has shown that people’s biggest regret is that they have not left a meaningful legacy!
Finally, I think the biggest thing leadership requires today is Charisma. This is not about being flashy, rather it’s all about creating positive energy, a willingness in people to want to follow you, and it’s the ability to inspire people. People will follow leaders only if they can trust him or her. Without trust there can never be true leadership! This is why I find it astounding that Jacob Zuma can celebrate when the National Prosecuting authority decided not to prosecute him. Surely, if he has real charisma and wants to build real trust he would have welcomed the opportunity to prove his innocence in a court of law?
The bottom line is leadership can most definitely be taught and the relevant skills acquired. Many of today’s leaders don’t have the skills because there huge confusion in the corporate world between management and leadership. So people are being promoted through the ranks until they reach their level of incompetence. We need more leaders, but more importantly, we need more people who will hold leaders accountable to curiosity, conviction, courage and charisma. The “new” leadership challenge is therefore not put to leaders, but to those who follow leaders blindly. Open your eyes and get involved.

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