Beyond the heroic CEO: the changing challenge of leadership

As Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School, Peter Hawkins has been looking into team development impact on cultural change within organisations.  For over thirty years he has been working with senior leaders and their organisations in addressing the many challenges they faced.  Among other books and articles, a white paper on that subject was published by Professor Hawkins.  Below are some abstracts from that paper.

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The changing challenges for leadership by Professor Peter Hawkins:

The initial review has involved talking to hundreds of leaders in different sectors and different countries, as well as an analysis of some of the recent literature and research in leadership development.  This reveals seven significant challenges for leaders and collective leadership:

  1. Winning the hearts and minds of your people by engaging people with EQ not just IQ. In 1997 Hooper and Potter wrote that the key issue facing future leaders is… ‘unlocking enormous human potential by winning people’s emotional support… our leaders of the future will have to be more competent, more articulate, more creative, more inspirational and more credible if they are going to win the hearts and minds of their followers.’
  1. Doing more with less – which means realising the potential in others; inspiring them to go beyond what they think they can achieve.  Since the recent economic crisis the pressure to achieve more with fewer resources is an ever – increasing demand in many sectors. In the public sector across Europe this is particularly pronounced.  I call it the ‘unholy Trinity’, where every public sector organisation is tasked with finding a way of simultaneously meeting increasing demographic demand, increasing expectations of quality and decreasing financial resources. Raising the collective organisational capability and capacity to respond and connect all three points of this triangle, requires collective senior leadership that does not disaggregate the quality issues from responding to increased demand or from reducing financial costs.
  1. Ensuring your leadership team performs at more than the sum of its parts.  Many leadership teams are full of very bright, talented and hard working individuals, yet the collective team functions at much less than the sum of its parts.  There is much work to be done to help teams become truly high performing.  Katzenbach and Smith, in Harvard Business Review, March 1993 defined a high performing team as, ‘A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.’  In my recent book on leadership Team Coaching, I added to this that, in addition, ‘a high performing team … effectively meets and communicates in a way that raises morale and alignment, engages with all the teams key stakeholder groups in a way that grows performance and provides constant learning and development for all its members and the collective team.’ (Hawkins, 2011). 
  1. Embracing constant change.  A few leaders still complain about the ‘goal-posts being moved’, but the majority now realise that they are in a world where, not only do the goalposts constantly move, but the rules of the game are also constantly changing.  Elsewhere (Hawkins and Wright 2009) I have written about how it has become increasingly difficult to achieve competitive advantage through technology, product quality or thought leadership, as these are all essential to continue to be in the game.  Whatever the sector, competitive advantage comes from providing a differentiated client/customer experience that stands out and can be trusted for its consistency, reliability and ability to be responsive.  As customers and clients increasingly have greater expectations and choice, change will continue to accelerate and the unresponsive organisations will fall by the wayside.
  1. Orchestrating connections across boundaries.  Increasingly the majority of challenges lie not within the parts of an organisation but in the interconnections.  The bigger challenges span organisational boundaries and can only be addressed by organisations partnering and collaboratively addressing the ‘wicked issues’ that lie in localities, sectors and joined up working.
  1. Relating transculturally.  This involves not just learning about the differences located in other cultures, but also becoming aware and sensitive to the differences and culture you bring into the room with you.  The majority of white people still act on the premise that they do not have a colour or ethnicity, for they are ‘normal’, and are blind to the insensitivity this brings into transcultural relationships (Ryde 2009).
  1. Creating shared value.  Michael Porter, the highly influential thought leader in the field of strategy, wrote with his colleague Mark Kramer, a ground breaking paper on ‘Shared Value’ for the Harvard Business Review (Porter and Kramer 2011), in which they argue that part of the current economic and global crisis comes from the breakdown of alignment between company goals and social progress:  ‘companies … remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past few decades.  They continue to view value creation narrowly, optimising short-term financial performance in a bubble while missing the most important customer needs and ignoring the broader influences that determine their longer-term success.

They go on to advocate:

The solution lies in the principle of shared value, which involves creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges.  Businesses must reconnect company success with social progress…  It is not on the margin of what companies do but at the center.  We believe that it can give rise to the next major transformation of business thinking.’

Like Porter and Kramer I would argue that the value of any organisational change is only realised by the subsequent changes in how it engages with, and creates value for, all its stakeholders.

Beyond the heroic CEO: the need for collective leadership

Even when faced with these ever-increasing challenges we still believe in the heroic CEO who can manage it all.  The myth of the perfect CEO or perfect leader is prevalent in many companies, organisations, sports teams and indeed even in the politics of nations.  We expect more and more from our leaders, invest such hope in their miraculous powers to turn things round and then are quick to criticise and blame them when they do not live up to our unrealistic expectations.

Warren Bennis, who has spent a life time studying leadership, writes:  ‘Our mythology refuses to catch up with us.  And so we cling to the myth of the Lone Ranger, the romantic idea that great things are usually accomplished by a larger-than-life individual working alone.  Despite evidence to the contrary – including the fact that Michelangelo worked with a group of 16 to paint the Sistine Chapel – we still tend to think of achievement in terms of the Great Man or the Great Woman, instead of the great Group.’ (Bennis, 1997)

Since Bennis wrote this the challenges of the world have continued to grow exponentially, in terms of complexity, interconnection, speed of change and the major threats now facing us as a species – and there is more to come.

The next thirty years will be the most exciting time to be alive, in the whole history of human beings on this planet.’  So said Tim Smit, the inspirational founder of the UK’s Eden Project, ‘for in that period we will discover whether Homo is really Sapiens or whether we are going are going to join the fossil records of extinct species’.

The leadership challenge is indeed greater now than it has ever been, for, when we wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, we see staring back at us one of the many endangered species on this planet.

The challenge would be great if we were just facing global warming or population explosion or technological interconnectedness or the volatility and fragility of the financial markets or the exhaustion of accessible oil supplies or the extinction of species at a rate 1,000 times greater than ever before; but we are not.  We are facing a world where all of these challenges and many more are happening in a systemically complex web of interconnecting forces, at an exponentially accelerating rate so that no expert can possibly understand the whole pattern, let alone know how to address it.

These interconnected challenges can not be addressed satisfactorily by individual expert scientists, nor by teams of scientists drawn from the same discipline, not even by multi-disciplinary teams of scientists drawn from the finest institutions in the world.  It certainly can not be solved by politicians, even with coalitions and a greater level of cross border co-operation than has ever existed, nor by pressure groups focussing on one aspect of the complex pattern.  The current world challenges task us as a species to find a way of working together, across disciplines and borders, beyond local and self interest in a way that has never been attained before in history.  In working together we need to generate new ways of thinking, for as Einstein so memorably pointed out, you can not solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.

So, if the world needs more highly effective collective leadership and leadership teams, and the challenges and hurdles they have to overcome are getting even greater, we need to explore what can be done to support the development of such leadership.

Yet even here, I would contend, the tide has been flowing against the direction that is needed.  So much of the literature and training on leadership is based on developing leadership capability within individuals.

The industry of leadership development, including coaching, which together is a multi-billion dollar business world wide, has so far failed to move fast enough to address the changing challenges and needs.

Many people use the term ‘leadership development’, when what they are actually talking about is leader development.  Leadership does not reside in individuals for leadership is always a relational phenomenon which at a minimum requires a leader, followers and a shared endeavour.

A great deal of leadership development has taken individual leaders, many of whom have IQs (intelligence quotients) many times greater than their EQs (emotional quotients) and who are, by nature, over individualistic and less skilled at collaboration, away from their current context and challenges and provided them with individual and cognitive based learning.  No longer are yesterday’s leadership development practices adequate for the enormity of the task that faces leadership.

A series of initial research projects into best practice in leadership development found leadership development was best when it was:

  • Real time – based on the real challenges that were current for the leaders and which they had a hunger to resolve.
  • Behaviourally transformative – not just leading to new insight and good intention, but to new actions and relationships, live in the workshop, coaching session etc.
  • Relational – leaders learning together with colleagues, where attention is given not only to the individuals changing but also the relationships between them.
  • Involving real stakeholder perspectives – including the challenges from employees, customers, partners, commissioners and regulators in live interaction.
  • Including unlearning – addressing limiting assumptions, mind-sets, habitual patterns that have been successful in the past and previous roles but need to be unlearnt for leadership to progress.

Henley’s leadership development approach has long focussed on real time challenges and on the relational aspects of leadership development – building self-awareness that allows leaders to understand their role in a collective leadership team.

Source:  Henley University of Reading, Henley Business School, Oxfordshire, UK

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