Getting Real: The Need for Genuine Leaders1

Article excerpt

The unprecedented upheavals of the last several years have created equally unprecedented challenges for leaders - from supervisors on the factory floor to executives in corporate suites to academic leaders throughout the world. Thanks to tighter budgets and competitive pressures, these men and women must achieve more results - and faster - through workforces that are often diminished, unfocused, and demoralized.

And small wonder: during the last several years there has been a litany of bad news from all parts of the world: global terrorism, long-festering international disputes that have exploded into violence and out-and-out war, unsettling geopolitical realignments, corporate scandals, national economies in trouble. Many organizations have disappeared altogether, including a few colleges; those remaining have cut back and dug in.

And what about an organization's leaders? In our work with leaders at all levels in organizations from virtually every business sector, we have observed the following reactions to this uncertain world:

* Collaboration under attack.

Competition for scarce internal resources - and even sometimes for continued employment - can turn the most collaborative leader into a cutthroat competitor.

* The paralysis of zero slack. Many organizations are so lean that they cannot absorb even a small misstep or miscalculation. The resulting stress on employees and leaders alike can be immobilizing.

* Panic "telling." For a struggling organization, it can seem more efficient to give up on participatory decision-making, along with coaching and employee development, and revert instead to giving orders.

* Wary workforces. Uncertain employees are pulling back, avoiding risk putting more energy into self-preservation than they are into the organization's well-being.

Unfortunately, although these reactions are understandable responses to difficult and uncertain times, they undercut employee involvement, and threaten to create workforces that simply do what they're told. In fact, these reactions are precisely opposite from the behaviors organizations need to encourage if they are to be successful in the long or the short term. In other words, the complexity of the challenges organizations face today is the best argument for encouraging more employee involvement, not less.

Because leaders are under such intense pressure to generate short-term results, they may feel justified in neglecting their responsibilities to develop and inspire their employees. Over time, however, this approach will not only reduce employee effectiveness. It will suck the workforce dry, and create a work environment that employees will be only too happy to escape at the earliest opportunity.

Leadership is easy during good times easier, at least, than during times of retrenchment when there are tough decisions to make, and no cushion of prosperity to fall back on. For a generation of academic managers who may have known only growth, hard times can be especially challenging. But, like a family that needs good budgeting skills most when money is tight, organizations need good leaders most during hard times - leaders who can tap into the very best efforts of all their employees, and get everyone headed in the same direction. It's the only way organizations can solve problems and seize opportunities with the creativity and speed required to stay competitive.

What Employees Want From their Leaders

To explore what leaders need in order to get results in today's world, we conducted a series of research projects in 2002 and 2003. Our purpose was to reexamine the foundation of our thinking about leadership and to determine what additional types of training might be necessary to prepare successful leaders in the future.

Central to the research was a 2003 online survey of 747 employees from the United States and the United Kingdom (32 percent of whom were executive-level managers). …