Leadership Insanity: 3 Reasons Why it’s Here and What to Do to Heal

May 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

I often ask seminar attendees to rate the current quality of their leadership on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is excellent and 1 is poor.  I have done this for the past 5 years and never have I seen an average rating above 5.  Is our leadership quality really that poor?  It is if we give credibility to the followers who are doing the rating.  Furthermore, why is our leadership so poor?  How can this be when there is such a need for quality leadership?  I believe this consistent set of low ratings is due to a kind of “leadership insanity” and there are three main reasons this insanity is so prevalent.

Perhaps you don’t believe my rating data.  Perhaps you think your leadership is effective.  If so, consider this additional data.  According to Watson and Wyatt only 39% of employees trust their senior leadership; only 31% of employees rate internal communication effective at their companies; only 52% of employees can see the connection between their jobs and the company strategy; only 25% of employees think their rewards system is effective; only 29% of employees are considered fully engaged.  According to Bersin Associates, only 18% of mid-level leaders and only 37% of senior leaders are rated excellent by their direct reports.  I could go on.

We all know the typical definition of insanity namely, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  Although this definition is memorable I offer a different definition from the dictionary: foolishness or lack of good judgment.  I believe many leaders are acting foolishly with their actions and decisions about policies that no longer make any sense.  I believe there are the three major conditions that cause this insanity.

An inability or unwillingness to understand and appreciate “Systems Thinking”

Systems’ thinking is the art of looking at the world as a whole and avoiding the analysis of the parts.  A system is a set of interdependent processes that work together cooperatively to achieve an aim.  We have not been taught effectively how to think deeply about systems.  Our public schools systems are competitive and attempt to improve the parts of that system (the students and/or the teachers).  Our organizations search for talent as if that talent exists separately from the whole and will create organizational success just by being present.

Systems’ thinking requires a focus on the quality of the interactions between the parts of the system and avoids evaluation of the performance of the parts.  Systems’ thinking takes into account how the system can impact the performance of that individual when looking for solutions to problems. Systems’ thinking requires a synthesis of parts and not a separation of them.  It helps answer questions about why people behave the way they do and not just analyze what and how they do it.

Leaders today tend to ignore systems’ thinking and this hurts their ability to solve problems quickly and for good.  This lack of effective problem solving hurts their leadership ratings making them look foolish.

An inability or unwillingness to understand and improve trust

I believe every organization must understand how to continuously improve trust.  Trust is the oil in the pistons of innovation, performance, and adaptation to change. A lack of trust results in fear, poor learning, an inability to adapt, and stagnation in improvement.

In their book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It, James Kouses and Barry Posner describe the key characteristics of a credible leader.  They list the top four characteristics as honesty, the ability to be forward-looking, the ability to inspire others to action, and the ability to be competent. These top four characteristics were chosen by up to 87% of the 1,500 survey respondents who were asked to define the characteristics crucial to leadership.

Coincidently, there is an alignment between these four characteristics and the four elements of trust included in the International Association of Business Communicators definition of trust.  The IABC define trust as the willingness to be vulnerable with another due to the presence of integrity (honesty), concern and respect (inspiration), shared objectives (inspiration and the ability to be forward looking), and competence (ability to be competent).

Leaders lack credibility and this is why they receive low ratings from their followers.  Managing the key elements of credibility and trust would provide improvement and healing.  This lack of focus on the key elements of trust causes followers to mistrust their leaders and make them appear foolish.

A senseless and foolish embrace of the past

Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management influenced everyone’s belief system about management.  His beliefs about people and work are still embraced today and we can see examples in our school systems and organizations.  Unfortunately, his beliefs, and the controlling policies that follow from them, have reached their limit in their ability to improve productivity and performance in the knowledge age.  Taylor methods do not create employee engagement and that is one reason why we are doing so poorly on that front.

Many leaders (if not most) still embrace policies and practices that are consistent with Frederick Taylor Scientific Management thinking.  Contingent pay for performance and the typical performance management system are examples of those policies.  These polices prevent employee engagement and act as barriers to improving leadership credibility.  These policies place leaders in a dominating position over employees.  They rob employees of autonomy and create victims.  Victims will not rate leaders highly.  Victims will not willingly follow leaders because they feel controlled.  Victims are created in environments of leadership insanity.

Healing our leadership insanity is essential to our future success.  We can’t continue to be led by foolish and senseless policies and procedures and expect a significant improvement in results.  To heal we must acknowledge our insanity and shift our focus and our behaviors.

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