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Reconnecting leadership

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 9 May 2018

The rise of leadership as an object of our collective fascination has coincided precisely with the decline of leadership in our collective estimation," says Harvard Kennedy School lecturer and founder of the Center for Public Leadership Barbara Kellerman.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford Graduate School professor agrees. "I look at the data," he told the Financial Times. "So the data say engagement is low and trust in leaders is low; that isn't cynical, that's the truth."

What's going wrong?

In his book, Leadership BS, Pfeffer says there is too much emphasis on "telling people inspiring stories about heroic leaders and exceptional organizations and, in the process, making those who hear the stories feel good and temporarily uplifted while not changing much of what happens at many workplaces."

Another issue is that it's more than just a few "bad apple" leaders, Pfeffer contends. "Bad systems" allow and even encourage poor, ineffective, unethical or uncaring behaviours in leaders. If the system (the organisation) does not address these behaviours then they become accepted and even endorsed.

This reminds us about the power of everyday interactions. In her book, Energize Your Workplace, Professor Jane Dutton notes that "Managers and leaders shape possibilities for energy in connection through two important means: how they interact with others and how they design and construct the contexts in which others interact ... The energy and vitality of individuals and organisations alike depends on the quality of the connections among people in the organisation."

But it's often these connections that go missing, creating distrust and disengagement. And organisational systems and practices too easily feed this disconnect. Things like the growing disparity between average employee earnings and CEO and executive pay are perhaps obvious. The centralising of decision making and power might make sense but also means decision makers too often act out of self interest. Physical separation from the front line of business activity (not to mention the layers of gatekeepers and security often in place) and meetings that lock groups of leaders in rooms for hours on end also create social separation rather than connection.

This disconnection can easily create "us and them" mentalities, blame games and a lack of two-way accountability.

If we're going to arrest the "leadership BS" and improve things like trust and engagement then something has to be done differently. One key to establishing and maintaining organisational connection and cohesion, as well as maintaining leaders' credibility, is to reduce physical and psychological distance by encouraging physical presence.

"Too many leaders have become remote, out of touch, isolated, and insulated," write Kouzes and Posner in their book, Credibility. "Earning credibility is a retail activity, a factory floor activity, a person-to-person activity. Credibility is gained in small quantities through physical presence Leaders who are inaccessible cannot possibly expect to be trusted just because they have a title."

And this isn't simply about enhancing the leader's profile; physical, psychological and emotional proximity enable the leader to learn and therefore reduce the potential for what management writer Gary Hamel called "ignorance tax". It's sometimes called "management by walking around" apparently simple but in practice often quite challenging if the system doesn't support it.

If we want leaders who are present, visible, connected, engaged and trusted then we have to enable, encourage and equip leaders to behave in those ways rather than rewarding (even by default) the behaviours that isolate and disconnect them.

Pfeffer offers the examples of organisations like DaVita, a kidney dialysis company, where anyone ascending to the level of vice president spends a week working in a dialysis centre; and the online retailer Zappos that requires all new hires, regardless of level, to undergo customer service training at one of their warehouses (and Zappos doesn't provide scripts for call centre operators or prescribe call times customer service is king so you have to be good!).

Zappos CEO (of 18 years) Tony Hsieh offers this insight into the company's approach. It highlights the importance of consciously making efforts individually and systemically to close the gap between formal leadership and day to day activities.

"To harness collective intelligence, we think of every single employee as a human sensor. Everyone senses different things, and you want a way to process all of that input. An airplane is one analogy. There are all of these different sensors. Some sensors, like the altimeter, are probably more important than others, but you want to be aware of all of them. Even if the altimeter looks fine, and most of the other sensors look fine, that doesn't mean it's OK to ignore the low-voltage warning light when it turns on. You don't allow the other sensors to outvote the low-voltage warning light and ignore it, yet the analogous thing happens all the time in organizations."7

The Zappos approach is in line with what Pfeffer calls "building work systems that are less leader-dependent, and instead devolve more power to a wider set of organizational constituents, particularly employees". This is not a new idea, but like many good ideas it is challenging in practice. And while "empowerment" sounds like a fine thing, the reality is organisations more typically limit people's power than release it.

Pfeffer also notes that "If leaders are expected to take care of and develop their people, then it is essential to measure whether or not they do, and then hold them accountable for those measurements." It's worth considering what actually gets measured in organisational leadership because those are the things they will naturally connect with.

In our Situational Leadership® workshops we often discuss the fact that leadership emerges from the dynamic mix of the leader (including their personality, experience and behaviours), the situation (task and context), the followers (including their personalities, experience, behaviours, and relationship with the leader), and the organisational environment (structures, systems and culture).

Effective leadership development does need to inspire and hold out positive examples, but it must also provide the practical "how to". Through organisationally supported behavioural training, assessment, and ongoing coaching leaders can be better equipped to move beyond the BS, by connecting more effectively and bringing out the best in others and themselves.

(If you'd like a copy of my three-page summary of Jeffrey Pfeffer's Leadership BS: Fixing workplaces and careers one truth at a time, just email me and I'll send you a copy.)s.

Aubrey Warren

Situational Leadership® Master Trainer and Australia and New Zealand Affiliate for the Center for Leadership Studies

© Copyright Aubrey Warren 2018



Kellerman, B. (2015). Hard Times: Leadership in America.
Hill, A. (2015). 'Leadership BS' and the reality of unpleasant bosses. The Financial Times (September 9).
Pfeffer, J. (2015). Leadership BS: Fixing workplaces and careers one truth at a time.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace.
Kouzes, J. & Posner, B. (2011). Credibility: How leaders gain and lose it, why people demand it.
Hamel, G. & Breen, B. (2007).  The Future of Management.
McKinsey Quarterly (2017). Safe enough to try: An interview with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. (October).

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