The Leadership Imperative

 imperative

 “Leadership is the critical force behind successful organizations. To create vital and viable organizations, leadership is necessary to develop a new vision of what they can be and then mobilize the organization to change towards that vision.” –Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus, Leaders, Strategies for Taking Charge, 2007

Leadership (from the senior suites to the front line) is a primary driver of business success. Leaders set the tone, define direction, design the architecture, build the culture, execute plans, monitor results, manage resources, develop people, and so on. In short, leaders touch and shape every aspect of organizational life. And yet doing this is more challenging than ever, due to the accelerating pace of change and escalating complexity of the world around us.

The leadership paradigm that worked for centuries is no longer adequate to manage in today’s fast-paced and complex times. The traditional leadership model is based on hierarchy and such principles as centralization, uniformity and control. Such principles were useful during the early days of the industrial revolution when management had to manage and control masses of untrained people in rather predictable and stable markets.

But that has changed. We now live in a digital age in which technological innovation changes the playing field every couple of years, customers and employees are educated and have many options, markets are global, and competition fierce. So leaders everywhere are rethinking what it means to lead.

Leadership, in today’s world, is about harnessing the collective genius of people. It is about rallying everyone behind the mission and vision and creating the conditions in which everyone performs at the peak of their ability. Effective leaders tear down walls. They bring people together. They build trust. They transform attitudes and behavior. They remove the barriers that keep people from being engaged and effective.

Companies such as W.L. Gore and Associates, Groupon, Google, Zappos, HCL Technologies, Great Harvest Bread Company, DaVita and many others are challenging traditional assumptions about leadership and creating high performance companies, among the best in their industries. Leaders of these companies are changing the leadership paradigm.

Here are some of the new assumptions that we believe will guide innovative companies in the future.

Assumption #1: No one in the organization is smarter or faster than everyone. Intelligence and wisdom exist at all levels of the organization. Certainly one person cannot think for nor do the work of many. The challenge, therefore, is to create a work culture that taps into the collective intelligence of the workforce rather than relying on a few people at the top. Research proves that the more the diversity of opinions and input, the better will be your decisions. (See the best-selling book, The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki.)

Assumption #2: Success in today’s world requires collaboration. We are interdependent. The work of an organization can only be accomplished by many people working together. Collaboration drives innovation, customer responsiveness, and speed. In fact, the number one finding, from IBMs most recent survey of 1700 top executives from around the world, is that CEOs “are creating more open and collaborative cultures — encouraging employees to connect, learn from each other and thrive in a world of rapid change. Collaboration is the number-one trait CEOs are seeking in their employees, with 75 percent of CEOs calling it critical.” (Leading Through Connections: Insights from the Global Chief Executives Study, IBM, 2012)

Assumption #3: People work for customers not bosses. Customers are the beneficiaries of the work of employees. This is where the ultimate accountability should lie. The better the line of sight and more information employees have about their customers, the better they’ll perform. For that reason, many innovative companies are either reducing the number of managers or even eliminating them entirely. (See my blog post “Let’s Fire All the Managers.”) I’m not suggesting you get rid of all your managers. I am suggesting that you strengthen the relationship between your people and those whom they are in business to serve.

Assumption #4: The best leaders are empowers and not controllers. In traditional organizations, managers set goals, make decisions, measure progress, evaluate performance, etc. They are the thinkers and planners, and employees are the doers. Consequently, they fail to tap the tremendous intelligence and creativity of their people. The new leadership paradigm changes to role of leaders from controlling people to creating the context in which teams of people are able to make decisions, solve problems, and significantly contribute to the mission or goals of the organization.

Assumption #5: Workers are partners and not subordinates. People want to succeed. They want to make a positive contribution. The motivation doesn’t have to come from without. By thinking of employees as partners rather than tools or costs on a balance sheet, leaders are able to remove barriers and create an environment that unleashes the potential of their people.

Do you want to improve the leadership in your organization? It begins with understanding your assumptions about good leadership. Then you can measure where you are, determine where you want to go, and decide how you’ll get there. Take some time to ponder a few questions:

  1. What are your current assumptions about good leadership?
  2. How would you describe the current leadership practices within your organization (senior management, middle management, front line) and their impact on employees?
  3. What leadership attitudes and behaviors do you think will be required to achieve outstanding and sustainable results in the future?
  4. How will you help your leaders get there?

There is little work more important than developing your leaders. Inherent in doing so, in today’s world, is helping them adopt a new paradigm and set of assumptions about the meaning of good leadership.

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