A crisis in organisational leadership?

While more money is spent on Leadership Development than on any other area of corporate learning:

71% of companies do not feel that their leaders are able to lead their organisations into the future.

Only 18% say that their leaders are “very effective” at meeting business goals. Some of the crisis is generational, with 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring every day and two-thirds of millennials looking for a new job. Despite the expenditures, the statistics indicate that succession plans are failing, and 58% of organisations have it as top priority to close leadership skill gaps. 1.Brandon Hall State of Leadership Development 2015

What if we have been looking in the wrong direction for the response to this problem? What if the solution lies in a different approach?

From Bosses to Leaders to …..

Nearly all the books on leadership have been written in the last 30 years. Before that we didn’t have leaders; we had bosses. The leadership training and coaching industries have developed since then. I suggest two primary reasons for this.

  1. Companies began to think that people and their motivation was important, that they might be more effective, or might simply leave if they found it elsewhere.
  2. The world became more complex and we needed technical experts who might know more than their bosses. Telling people what to do was an inadequate skillset. So far, so good

The statistics above suggest that the new model is failing. In general, how much better is our leadership now than it was then? If you are a leader, do you feel that more is being asked of you than is within your capacity to deliver? If you are looking at those around you, do you see leadership that feels truly fit for purpose, or just the best that you can get?

My contention is that leadership as a concept is reaching its limits. However much it has improved, all the indications are that we are falling short more than ever. Stress levels are higher. The unpredictability and complexity seem always to be a step ahead. The average tenure of a FTSE 100 CEO is 5 years. Sustainability doesn’t live here.

Where is the intelligence of an organisation?

Sunflower, Crisis in Leadership, Jon FreemanI have been thinking lately about sunflowers. You probably know that these plants turn their face to the sun as it moves through the sky – in French they are even called “tournesol”. You are also likely to have been taught that the plant kingdom doesn’t have brains. So where is the leadership in a sunflower? Science doesn’t quite know yet as it hasn’t even been looking, but a leading researcher, Michael Pollan, says this, “They have analogous structures. They have ways of taking all the sensory data they gather in their everyday lives … (they) integrate it and then behave in an appropriate way in response.” And there is more – they seem to hear without ears, to remember and to learn from experience. 2.https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-intelligence-may-forever-change-how-you-think-about-plants

Poorly informed leadership

There has been a basic assumption until now – that the brains of an organisation are, or need to be in its leaders. But leaders can only see part of the picture and they work with information that is pre-filtered. At best it is limited to the questions that they ask or the data that has been programmed as necessary, at worst distorted by chains of communication and systemic biases. So who would spot the unexpected? The leadership model is one that ensures intelligence will be constrained.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not arguing here for flat organisations, turgid consensus (heaven forbid) or getting rid of leaders. But simply developing leaders is not getting the job done, because that doesn’t in itself awaken the organisational intelligence. We have to see the organisation differently and we have to look at what would increase its capacity; its knowing; its ability to bring in data from its environment and to act responsively. There is a reason for using the sunflower image – somehow our organisations need to be able to know where the sunshine is, without having to be told.

Create the conditions for your organisation to lead itself

Systems in nature, Crisis in Leadership, Jon FreemanTo extend the analogy, think of your organisation as if it were a forest. Don’t just see the trees, either, look at the soil filled with worms and beetles, micro-organisms, lichens and fungi. Include the birds and rabbits (or whatever), the ferns and bushes, grasses and vines. It is estimated that a single mature oak may support several hundred species. Each tree grows in response to available light, rainfall, wind. Beech trees share nutrients with each other.   The entire ecology is a sensing, adaptive system, and as Nora Bateson has observed “When we look to nature for models, we find that there is not an ecology that would accommodate the existing model of leadership.3.Nora Bateson “Small arcs of larger circles”. P 83.

Richard Branson is a distraction

Moses, Crisis in Leadership, Jon FreemanIn the evolution of organisations, our model of leadership is one step up from bosses in a journey that needs to continue further. Today’s complex and fast-changing world needs more than leaders. Humans are used to the old ways, to thinking that somewhere there is a Moses who will lead us to the Promised Land. Occasionally special people show up and we all-but-worship them, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson or whomever you admire. We read their biographies and look to learn their special formulae but I suggest that these people distract our attention and support a mythology. We expect the same of our politicians. Is it surprising that we are regularly disappointed in both areas?   Isn’t the truth that this is too much to expect, and that perhaps we need a different approach?

The alternative: awakened awareness

The good news is that there are other ways. It is possible for organisations to become more intelligent. To a huge extent the intelligence is already there, latent, dormant and held in check. You can release it. And while it may seem that there is never sufficient information – that we don’t know what we need to know – this too is largely a mythology. It is possible to open up the system to be more aware of itself and its environment. This is not done by Big Data and AI. Information systems can be a support, but when data still has to pass up a chain and to be examined by a committee, it is not responsive. In addition you are always at risk of being blindsided by the data you are not collecting, the questions you didn’t think to ask. Outsourcing the brain isn’t an answer; humans don’t manage forests as well as forests do. We have to in-source, or re-source.

There is no cookie-cutter for this work and no predetermined timescale. The organisation knows how fast it can go, which change is needed first and how much it can handle without disruption. It only needs to see itself more clearly. There are many ways to develop the awareness, to detect the blockages and to find fresh ways forward.

I/we can’t give you answers, but we can help you find what questions to ask, and to ask them in ways that reveal what you need to know. If you know that you need something more, new and different, something fundamentally empowering and given time, potentially transformative, start with an open-ended conversation in the comments below.  We are eager to explore with you.

To what extent do you agree that we’re in a crisis in organisational leadership? and, what would it take for your organisation to act responsively to new data it finds in the external environment? Tell us your thoughts in a comment below, perhaps referring to your perspective on the future of leadership in your business.


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7 responses to “A crisis in organisational leadership?”

  1. gary says:

    Here’s an article that promotes an alternative to our traditional leadership model.

    • Jon Freeman says:

      Hi Gary, Thanks for reading and commenting. It seems to me that the article you have posted here talks about different ways to develop skills within the current leadership model. Action learning is something that we in Future Considerations use too, and I would not disagree with it as a suggested approach to development. But I don’t see anything that responds to the point I am making – that the way we have seen leadership is in itself less viable than it has ever been. I am wondering if you agree that this is the case?

  2. Tim Stanyon says:

    Thanks Jon. I concur with a great deal of this from my own experience of working in Leadership Development for 15 years and being part of leadership groups for the 15 years before that. I am amazed how “sticky” the heroic leader myth remains and I wonder if much of that is due to our collective anxieties about our own abilities to “lead” (given many of the mis-placed definitions of leadership we have grown up with) and still seek it “from them up there”? If we think of leadership as a collective responsibility within organisations and one in which we are already versed (from the other domains of our lives) we can be released from the need to seek it only in others. As you rightly say one of the main jobs of any leader is create conditions for others to develop all their capabilities and to enable the organisation to be able to better see itself and thus know what is required (amplifying those often small voices at its own boundaries which are “seeing” what is needed now) together with removing as many impediments to appropriately paced action as it can.

  3. Jon Freeman says:

    Thank you Tim. It is always gratifying to have agreement.

    And it then leads to the question “How do we become the kind of organisation in which collective responsibility is natural and functional?”

    • Alan Arnett says:

      Hi Jon (and Tim!). Good piece, and interesting question. I’ve been experimenting in this space myself for a while now, on myself and with clients. No ‘recipe’ as such, but three things keep popping up for me:

      1. There are a lot of people telling ‘others’ what they should be doing, in all directions (just look on social media at the moment), but Step 1 is for each of us to recognise we have to own our contribution to the system, not wait for someone else to fix it for us or just yell at other people to change. It reminds me of the concept of codependence, and that its not possible to get to interdependence (one label for what you describe) without each person becoming independent first – to own and manage their response to the system and their contribution to changing it. These days this often gets labelled resilience but it’s often framed in terms of ‘coping’, not shifting.

      2. The second thing is relationships and how we see them. As humans we aren’t often very good at handling difference, of all kinds. We all want to be heard, so we have a habit of pushing and explaining our view first, not spotting that other people are not feeling heard, so they aren’t listening. The shift to versions of conversations that are genuine inquiries, with good questions, is a key one. The distinction I find most useful is one someone once taught me, that you don’t have to agree with someone’s else’s opinion to be able to work usefully together. We need to spend less time arguing who is ‘right’ and more time solving problems (not issuing strategies or policies).

      3. Which finally brings me to how we do that. There are lots of ‘methods’ out there in the market – design thinking, creative problem solving, various innovation frameworks, Open Space and other LGI’s, etc, etc. In amongst all the advocacy for one over another is often a really simple structure. Can we agree what problem we are trying to fix, what question we are trying to answer (the need); can we agree our ambition or direction – where are we heading? (outcome); and what options can we find to make progress? (experiments/solutions). The challenge is using any process without it deteriorating into argument and bias, hence the need for the first two components.

      A lot of my work lately is coaching, and I’m using this ‘3 legged stool’ with people to good effect to make sense of the new ambiguities of work and leadership.

  4. Laura says:

    Thought provoking article Jon – thanks for opening a conversation on (to my mind) one of the most critical debates facing organisations today. My belief is that we are all leaders, and the most impactful way to gain traction within current traditional/hierarchical organisational structures is to work with cross-sections of organisations, building leadership capability through networked approaches. Working with senior leaders/leaders of the future can in itself create voids and the identification of ‘talent’ in itself be limiting to those who aren’t identified as such. That said, much value can be created from ‘traditional’ leadership programmes, particularly in the context of profound personal transformation. Melding what we know works and adapting it to unlock the potential of the whole of our organisations is an exciting prospect!

  5. Jon Freeman says:

    Thank you Alan and Laura for your responses. You both present perspectives which I see as part of the picture. But I also yearn for a greater understanding of how we support and embed the intelligence of the collective and free the system itself. It is both true and misleading to say that “we are all leaders”, and potentially clouds our thinking. My sunflower analogy doesn’t fully extend into the organisational space, and neither does the forest. There are no other ecologies like the human one, because humans create meaning and context and relationship. Leadership will come from different individuals, in different ways, at different times. The challenge that I see is for us to free the system so that this can be a reality, not an aspiration. We have been preparing the individuals for the last couple of decades and no doubt will continue to do so. We have not, by and large, created organisational spaces which support, facilitate, maximise the expressions of the capabilities that we are nurturing. And that to me is the area demanding more of our attention.

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