Time for Leadership to measure up

Most leaders talk about the value of long term results, and of valuing people.

We are taught that the measures of leadership success should be based on numbers – the bottom line impact is all important.  All too often leadership KPIs focus on bottom line figures, sales, turnover, productivity, efficiency savings, and profit. Whilst such metrics are clearly part and parcel of performance management, they do not portray the full measure of successful leadership. This is because the traditional measures deal in numbers only.  Many reward and bonus systems are based on hitting the numbers.  This approach is not a recipe for long term success however.  It fails to take account of the fundamental requirement for leaders to create an environment where people feel safe – conditions that need to be in place for sustainable success to be achieved.

Safe environments that are built on trust

The requirement for leaders to build environments based on safety and security is referred to as ‘the circle of safety’ by the leadership and TED talk expert Simon Sinek.   Sinek explains that there are many external threats and dangers facing organisations, and the pathway to sustainable success is one where everyone in the organisation feels safe and secure.  Too much time and energy is spent by people protecting themselves from within the same organisation, and this causes organisations to become distrustful, causing high-stress environments where paranoia rules.  Such environments will inherently weaken organisations over the long term.

Only when our employees feel safe and secure will they pull together as a unified team.   When the environment at work is one of encouragement, with opportunities to learn, to feel valued and significant within a circle of safety, people thrive.  As social beings, we are wired with a strong need to connect and belong.  When we know our leaders are providing protection from above, employees will work hard on the ground and will follow leadership because they want to not because they have to. So we need to ask whether leaders are creating a psychologically safe or unsafe environment within our organisations and our teams.

Leading in the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world.    

In today’s business world, these leadership qualities are often lacking.  There are many complex reasons for this.  Too many leadership competency frameworks have failed to recognise the importance of these qualities.  People continue to be appointed or promoted to leadership roles despite an inability to put the needs of the wider team ahead of their own self-interest, and to build the high-trust, safe environments that are needed for long term success.

So what is the impact and why is this so important?  To be blunt, there is a very real ‘crisis of leadership’ in business and across wider society.  We are living through a period of unprecedented uncertainty and complexity where such leadership qualities are instrumental for organisational success within the so called VUCA world, but they are the exception rather than the norm. The VUCA world presents so many different threats and opportunities, requiring a very different leadership mentality.  Only safe and secure environments built on real and genuine trust will withstand the turbulence of the VUCA world. Leaders will need the skills and capabilities to take full responsibility for the actions of their organisations, and to steer them through the VUCA world.

Turning around distrustful cultures

Many organisations will have a values or mission statement which is often a variant of ‘People are our most important asset’ or ‘We value our people’.  Many organisations claim to have strong levels of trust, outstanding leadership, engaged employees that feel valued, safe and secure.  How close is the reality to this rhetoric?  How honest are leaders about the levels of trust that exist within their own organisations?  Leaders need to be honest and up front about the challenge that lies ahead and accept that they are responsible for both success and failure.  Those in leadership positions often create distrust by acting in a way which is contrary to organisational values.

This comes about in a variety of ways.  Certain types of ‘leader’ will take all the credit for success, but none of the responsibility for failure.  Some leaders will always blame their teams for poor performance, errors and mistakes.   Rather than look inwardly at their leadership, the default response is to blame others.  To accept culpability as a leader could risk a significant blow to reputation, and a bruised ego.  How do we create organisational cultures which allows for personal failure to be discussed openly and honestly by the leader, and within teams, without fear of reprisal?

It is the fear of damaging our reputation and credibility in the eyes of others that drives this reaction.  The problem with many leaders is that they can become too focussed on themselves to the detriment of the needs of those around them.  Worse still, organisational systems can actually end up rewarding this type of behaviour.  You may recognise this type of behaviour in leaders you know, perhaps by certain leaders operating within your organisation, and even maybe in yourself.

Profits matter, but people should always matter more

What we do know is that public trust in leadership is at an all-time low.  The Edelman Trust Barometer is an annual survey of 1300 people in five countries to provide a global measurement of trust in leadership around the world, including business, government, NGOs and the media.  The 2017 annual global study reveals that trust in leadership is actually in a state of crisis around the world.  Business leaders now, more than ever, need to take this challenge head on, and recognise the need to build the high-trust, safe and secure environments that will be required.  Leadership that genuinely recognises that profit matters, but people should always matter more.   Leaders who don’t just say ‘we value our people’ but demonstrate this day to day in their interactions and behaviours with each other and with their employees.  To build organisational and leadership development systems that develop and reward these behaviours rather than the traditional hard metrics.

Too often leadership is seen as a rank.  People can assume leadership authority, but this does not necessarily make them a leader.  Conversely, there are many examples of people who do not have senior authority but are in every sense true and authentic leaders through their behaviours.

So how can we begin to change the mindset of leadership to realise that sustainable success equals the creation of safe and secure environments?  How do we build leadership qualities based on the needs of others outweighing the needs of the actual leader – to build true humility?

Rather than seek to ‘change people’ leaders must change and enhance their environments to create a true sense of safety and trust.  It is leadership’s responsibility to set the right conditions/environment for this to happen.  Put simply, Leaders set the culture and that is why leadership matters so much.

Changing the leadership mindset

The great news is that leadership in any business can decide to change things right away.  It takes very little money or resource – but does require a change of mindset.

More and more organisations are recognising the need to develop leadership capabilities centred on a truly human leadership approach.  The truly human leadership approach was coined by Bob Chapman in the excellent book ‘Everybody Matters’.  When most business leaders talk about a people centric culture, Bob and his team at Barry Wehmiller have actually done it.

We can also learn a lot from the military in shaping our understanding of truly human leadership.  The following extract is taken from the thought-provoking book ‘Extreme Ownership: How US Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

Willink and Babin introduced the concept of ‘extreme ownership’ which they describe as ‘the number-one characteristic of any high-performance winning team, in any military unit, organisation, sports team or business team in any industry’.

On any team, and in any organisation, all responsibility for success and failure rests with the leader.  The leader must own everything in his or her world.  There is no one else to blame.  The leader must acknowledge mistakes and admit failures, take ownership of those, and develop a plan to win.

If we can build leadership capabilities that recognise the importance of safe and secure environments, we will begin to reverse the endemic ‘crisis of leadership’ and build higher levels of trust.  Leaders have an amazing opportunity to influence the lives of those they are privileged to lead, through a truly human centred leadership approach.  This means having the courage and conviction to take a longer term view of success.  There will need to be less reliance on short term metrics and the introduction of measures of the organisational environment, how this has improved the lives of those working within the organisation, and whether people feel fulfilled and have a real sense of pride in their workplaces.  These measures will encourage leadership behaviours, creating the conditions necessary for people and organisations to thrive within the VUCA world.  In doing so, leaders will not only help to build better organisations, but will also help to build better societies.  Perhaps this will ultimately be the true measure of successful leadership in the future?


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