Monday, November 16, 2009

The Leadership Deficit in American Business

Much of what I and others say about leadership seems intuitively obvious. If you manage a company or department you will likely dismiss it as beneath your pay grade. If you do not, you might not understand why people who traffic in platitudes can command such high consulting fees.

Now, John Baldoni reports that McKinsey has done a survey of corporate managers to assess their attitudes toward leadership.Link here.

Before reading this I would have assumed that managers know that they should inspire, motivate, and provide direction to those who report to them. I would have been wrong. According to McKinsey only a minority of managers knows this.

Corporate America has been suffering through a severe crisis. Yet, only 46% of managers believe that they should be providing direction during a crisis. And only 48% believe that they should inspire their staffs.

On other scores the results are less encouraging. A mere 30% of managers believe that their job involves motivating their staff, and only 23% saw that they needed to be more accountable. As for innovation in a crisis, only 33% saw it as part of their job description.

After looking at these numbers Baldoni draws the only sensible conclusion: "If a majority of managers do not believe that inspiration and direction are necessary for corporate performance, and that motivation and accountability are not essential, then our companies are in far worse shape than imagined."

The real question, however, is: What went wrong?

When it comes to inspiration, Baldoni notes that most managers do not understand what it means to inspire their staff. They assume that inspiring equals charismatic and that being it requires soaring rhetoric and Churchillian pep talks.

I sympathize with the managers here. Their failure to understand what inspiration involves can easily be traced back to the management gurus who do not know how to define their concepts.

Apparently, inspiration also means setting a good example. A manager inspires others by showing himself to be organized and motivated, engaged in his work, efficient and effective.

None of this is really about inspiration. And our normal understanding of the term would not include activities like mentoring, coaching, and showing people how to the best job. Yet, Baldoni suggests that management consultants have thrown these important qualities under the category of inspiration.

The ability to set corporate direction ought not to be subject to the same level of misunderstanding. As I have mentioned on this blog, a good corporate manager must define the mission, articulate policy and strategy, and ensure that everyone is working toward the same goal.

Apparently, managers too often believe that these qualities are restricted to the highest executive levels. Yet, if a lower level manager does not demonstrate some skill in setting a direction for his work group, he is unlikely ever to advance to those higher levels.

Leadership involves defining everyone's role and ensuring that each person knows how he or she is supposed to relate to others. Staff members need to know what their job is; what their responsibilities are; when and how they will be held accountable; and how their job fits into the larger corporate structure.

All good managers do this, and do it well.

We can speculate about the reasons why a majority of managers do not know or do not practice these leadership skills. I suspect that the culture at large, and the therapy culture in particular, bears some responsibility for this failure. After all, business does not exist in a vacuum. Today's staff was educated and trained by the school system and the media long before they arrive at corporate headquarters.

Our therapy culture allows each person to be an autonomous individual and insists that everyone's likes and dislikes be respected equally. You cannot run a team if everyone's opinion is taken to be equally valid. You cannot exercise leadership when no one has ever learned the art of followership.

Nor can you run a team if there are no accepted standards. A school system that tells students that there are no right or wrong answers, that creativity counts more than strict instruction, is not preparing them to work within a corporate group.

We also live in a culture where people are taught, sometimes explicitly, to disrespect authority. We are told, through schools and the media, that following someone's lead and doing what you are supposed to do are bad for your mental health.

Having had to deal with the products of this acculturation many managers may simply have given up on exercising leadership. How can you lead people who have been trained to believe that the only authority worth following is the authority of their personal feelings.

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