Social science isn’t as alluring as most feel-good leadership talk. Recently, a large public accounting firm where I delivered a presentation on influence and power told me that their head of human resources wanted a more “inspirational” presentation on leadership than what I was preparing. Material based on the facts of organizational life and relevant social science research wouldn’t be uplifting enough for their new cohort of leaders, the head of HR said.
Many leadership development (LD) events feature speakers telling compelling life stories about overcoming various physical or economic challenges. Others feature engaging speakers relaying examples of leaders who claim modesty, authenticity, truthfulness and trustworthiness.
But this pervasive feel-good approach to LD may explain why leadership is a largely failing enterprise: A 2018 survey co-sponsored by Ultimate Software reported that 80 percent of employees said they could do their jobs without their managers and only 53 percent thought their managers cared about their well-being. A recent report by PR-firm Edelman found that 63 percent of respondents don’t consider CEOs to be credible. And a Brandon Hall Group study reported that 75 percent of people said that their leadership development programs lacked effectiveness.
All of these feel-good LD initiatives do just that: they make us feel good, but they develop neither the knowledge nor the skills that help people be more effective in getting things done—a critical component of leadership. It’s time to do things differently.
Inspiration Doesn’t Equate to Lasting Change
Inspiration, a goal of many LD initatives, is a poor method to achieve lasting change. The temporary motivational high soon wears off.
So, how do we affect real change? We know from decades of research in social psychology that social environments drive behavior. As Keith Ferrazzi wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2014, changing behavior, be it in a 12-step abstinence program or any other effort, requires altering the people in one’s social network. Moreover, changing the physical cues and prompts that influence behavior is another important intervention. The measurements that provide people feedback about what they should be doing and how well they are meeting their objectives is a third potent way of accomplishing behavioral change. Inspiration—not so much.
At a minimum, LD efforts should stop measuring how much people enjoyed an event—a process which reinforces edu-tainment—and instead assess LD programs against important objectives such as increased engagement, decreased turnover and a sufficient numbers of leaders.
Most Leaders Don’t Walk the Walk
The qualities that leadership programs relentlessly advocate, albeit wonderful, are frequently absent in today’s political and corporate leaders.
For instance, modesty and many contemporary business leaders—Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, even Howard Schultz—don’t seem to go together. Research shows that narcissism, not modesty, is correlated with being hired, being promoted, receiving job tenure, and even participating in group performance. The disconnect between what LD programs advocate and what people see, often in their immediate environments from their own senior leaders, produces a high degree of cynicism and a reluctance to accept the lessons being proffered.
Therefore, LD programs would be well-served to change the emphasis from aspirational qualities that are not only rare, but also often not helpful to a focus on pragmatic skills, such as the ability to exude presence, build useful networks, create valuable resources and tolerate not being liked, all of which are associated with measures of success.
“Leadership” as a Term Is Ambiguous
“Leadership” and what we mean by effective leadership remains too ambiguous. There are many dimensions to leadership effectiveness: employee engagement, employee health and well-being, productivity, ethical compliance—the list goes on. But these aspects are far from perfectly correlated with each other, and LD initiatives would benefit greatly from more focus. Companies need to decide what are the most important aspects of leadership, and recognize the realities of trade-offs.
As Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote decades ago, “power is the organization’s last dirty secret, but it is also the secret to individual and organizational success.”
Leaders: Master Organizational Politics
An important focus of leadership development efforts needs to be teaching people in leadership roles how to understand and use the principles of power and influence that are invariably essential for making things happen.
Gerald Ferris, a Florida State University professor who co-authored Political Skill at Work, has developed a political skills inventory and conducted numerous studies showing how political skill is associated with career success and leadership effectiveness. Leaders who don’t master organizational politics don’t stay in their roles very long, he found, and many career derailments occur when people reach organizational levels where jobs entail much more interdependence that requires being able to influence others.
Power and influence concepts do a much better job of helping people understand what they see in the organizational world around them and become more effective at making things happen. Far from Jack Nicholson’s famous line in the movie, A Few Good Men, not only can people handle the truth, educational efforts that are rooted in the hard truths of leadership, even if occasionally challenging or unpleasant, are much more likely to produce lasting increases in leader effectiveness.
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