Fast-trackers can lack ethics, vision

In search of leaders who elevate employees, not their own stock options

The rash of corporate scandals, an imminent mass exodus of baby boomers from executive suites and the general heightening of competitive pressures have combined to put corporate leadership development practices under the microscope — many people don’t like what they see.

Canadian HR Reporter asked three leadership development experts what is going wrong. Two clear messages emerge.

The first is that in the last decade some fundamental flaws infected standard leadership development practices. The second is that simply doing a better job of developing leaders in a traditional sense will no longer suffice. Fundamentally different leaders are required for the modern world of business and at the moment the system isn’t delivering.

One of the biggest problems in the last decade has been the premature promotion of emotionally incompetent people into leadership positions, says Kerry Bunker, an executive coach from the North Carolina-based Center for Creative Leadership. But the remedy is more than a few courses on emotional intelligence; emotional competence comes only through experience, he says.

In an article in the December issue of Harvard Business Review, Bunker and co-authors Kathy Kram and Sharon Ting, explained the problem. “At some point in a young manager’s career, usually at the vice-president level, raw talent and determined ambition become less important than the ability to influence and persuade.”

Many leaders are never given the opportunity to develop those abilities. This oversight has caused many problems in recent years, Bunker says.

Research from the Center for Creative Leadership found about one-third of all senior executives either derail completely or fail to live up to expectations, he says. Probably 50 per cent of those failures are due to interpersonal problems or emotional incompetence.

“In the mid-’90s, a lot of emphasis was placed on raw talent,” Bunker says.

It was assumed that if they were bright enough they could do anything, including taking over a leadership position. That simply wasn’t true, he says.

People were moved into senior positions so quickly they skipped a lot of the maturing experiences other leaders benefited from, he says. “You end up with a group of people who are very talented in a lot of ways but they have missed out on a lot of developmental experiences,” he says. “It isn’t youth per se, it is a lack of maturing experiences that are needed to develop people into good, well-rounded leaders.”

It is almost unnatural to rush some people into leadership positions, he says. Every person has a natural maturation cycle and for most people their 30s is a time when they are driven to prove their capabilities. When that period passes the person will be less driven by ego, less inclined to prove how smart he is and more willing to put the interests of employees and others before his own self-interest.

“It is a very challenging time to be the leader and I think it demands much more wisdom than in the past,” he says.

“On the one hand (employees) want leaders to be super human and on the other hand they want them to be open and vulnerable and just like (themselves).”

People want authenticity and credibility from their leaders, he says. Paradoxically, it is also easier than ever for leaders to fake authenticity and credibility.

“Many of the people I work with have read more books than I have,” says Bunker. They understand on an intellectual level the importance of being emotionally competent.

But simply understanding the importance of those issues is different from actually being able to demonstrate the right behaviours and use the right techniques. People can be taught active listening techniques but without the full range of emotional competencies like openness, patience and empathy, they still won’t be effective leaders.

Experience comes with age but not only with age, says Bunker. Young people can still be successful leaders but they need to have right combination of experiences and they need to have learned from those experiences. This can require moving laterally into different positions rather than focusing on promotions.

But it is also very difficult for employees who have always excelled to be asked to suddenly step out of their comfort zone, and move into a position where they don’t have as much authority or responsibility. “It feels like a demotion,” says Bunker.

Over the last decade many management academics have explored the concept of transformational leadership. Champions of transformational leadership say it’s a superior form of leadership based on motivation, inspiration and compassion rather than command, control and coercion.

By now there is a great deal of evidence that transformational leadership can produce better organizational performance, says Julian Barling, associate dean at Queen’s University’s School of Business in Kingston, Ont.

Transformational leaders encourage employees to perform beyond their expectations and challenge them to think about old problems in new ways. They also treat employees with compassion and respect. This has become particularly important since September 11, says Barling.

People have been feeling uneasy and they want meaningful work in organizations that treat them with respect, says Barling.

In that light, transformational leadership has become even more important. And while there is no question that transformational leadership can be developed, most organizations haven’t been doing it and those that have been trying aren’t doing a very good job, he says.

For one thing, most people overestimate what it takes to become a transformational leader. Transformational leadership evolves through small and steady changes maintained over time, he says.

“If you read some of the books that are propagating leadership change you will come away with the feeling that what is needed is total personality change,” he says. It seems impossible so they revert to doing the same old command-and-control type things. Transformational leadership can evolve from surprisingly simple changes, he says.

“The kinds of changes required are not overwhelmingly big things, (it’s) changing the small things that truly matter,” he says.

What kinds of small things? “Employees tell us that if leaders would just apologize for mistakes, just walk over and say ‘I’m sorry’ and mean it,” says Barling, “it is those small things that build trust.”

The other important flaw in the system is a lack of training followup, says Barling. “The issue is not getting people to learn stuff, the issue is getting people to enact it and then maintain it.”

Training programs and courses can develop these behaviours in leaders, but to be truly effective it takes followup and almost no organization does that, he says. It’s not the money, he says. It’s the time. Here too, estimations of the time commitment may be overstated, he says. Training followup does not have to be overly taxing and in any case, without taking the time to ensure leaders are actually applying their training in the workplace, the time spent on the original course will be wasted, he says.

Manuel Mendonca, an organizational effectiveness expert in McGill University’s Faculty of Management in Montreal, also says organizations should be looking for transformational leaders to inspire and motivate employees. But he says the shortage of those leaders stems not from the programs and practices being used to develop leaders — it is the underlying philosophy of leadership itself that’s flawed.

Organizations can’t have transformational leaders until they develop ethical leaders, says Mendonca.

The primary driver of most leaders is still self-interest, stemming from the traditional notions of competing self-interests creating some semblance of balanced general good, he says.

By definition, leaders who are driven by self-interest can’t be transformational, he says. They can be successful but only in the short run. In fact, leaders who are driven by self-interest can be “highly manipulative,” and damaging to an organization, he says. “There is evidence galore that downsizing has often been done just to benefit the CEO’s stock options.” This model not only impedes organizational progress but brought us Enron, WorldCom and all, he says.

The lack of ethical leadership is a product of the system that produces leaders, he says. Too many leaders are nurtured in a system where rather than challenge corruption, they stay quiet if it is in their self-interest, he says.

Courses in ethics were until recently very rare in MBA programs and even the business schools have set a bad example when it comes to demonstrating business ethics. Mendonca says one study showed business school deans are more likely to participate in unethical actions if it will get their school a donation.

“It is completely widespread,” he says. “If these (behaviours) were within the family, the family breaks up. Why should it be any different in organizations?” he asks.

The good news is that more organizations are starting to appreciate that “leadership, in order to be effective, has to be concerned for others before self.”

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