The problem with today’s leadership

Leadership has become the new thing. As the recognition that well-led
organisations are high-performance organisations increases, so the quest is on
to find good leaders. The trouble is that not only is leadership becoming
increasingly difficult in an era of extraordinary change and pressure, but
those who possess such skills are in increasingly short supply.

Leadership problems are well advertised. According to a report from the
Institute of Management, almost half of junior managers said leadership in the
workplace is poor. In the public sector, the UK’s police chiefs have been
criticised for being bland, superficial and weak leaders by their colleagues.
Wherever you look, the complaint is the same. Leaders are remote, don’t
communicate, don’t delegate and don’t possess a clear vision of their organisation.

The answer lies in rethinking our traditional model of leadership from its
first foundations. The powerful, persuasive and charismatic champions who
inhabit our business literature have, in the current environment, been all but
extinguished by the challenges of the age.

The acceleration of change, new depths of complexity and intensity of
competition – hyper-competition – have irreversibly shaped the commercial
agenda. Organisations have to drill down to their core competences and have a
clear idea of their competitive advantage to survive. To thrive they need to
become networked organisations, harnessing information and communication
technologies that allow them to collaborate with other companies for a share of
their expertise or contacts.

The paradox is that they can only do this successfully if they possess a
core moral, economic and social organisational purpose and this requires
leaders capable of identifying, expressing and communicating such purpose
internally and externally.

Public-service leaders are not immune to these internal and external
pressures. They need to become more networked, and that will inevitably involve
closer relationships with the private sector. But again they must retain a
conception of their core purpose – the discharging of public obligations – if
they are to be robust partners, otherwise the private partners will redefine
the nature of what is public. Again the paradox is that successful networking
requires a very clear idea of the purpose the network aims to serve and in the
public sector that means a conception of ‘publicness’.

In short, there is no place to hide. We need better leaders in the public
and private sector. The bad news is we are light years away of addressing the
problem. The good news is at last this subject is getting the hearing it
deserves – and that at least is a beginning.

By Will Hutton, Chief Executive, The Industrial Society

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