Executive Success: Making leadership more than a word

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Same old approach won't solve the big issues, says author
'Leadership' is often just 'management' by another name, argues Brigid Carroll. Photo / Jason Oxenham
'Leadership' is often just 'management' by another name, argues Brigid Carroll. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Grappling with the big issues - sustainability, social responsibility, innovation, marketplace shifts, inequality - has sent people hunting for answers on how to lead in this environment.

If they were to go looking in the leadership literature, they'd come away bitterly disappointed, says Brigid Carroll, a University of Auckland Business School associate professor and director of research at the New Zealand Leadership Institute.

"And that was because the leadership literature seemed concerned with petty organisational issues, relationships between direct reports and managers and appeared to be obsessed with the psychology of leadership.

"There was nothing to take back and say: how do we help organisations and the world navigate the pressing contemporary issues that are really important?"

It's a critical challenge to address, she says, and she has attempted to bridge the "yawning gap" between people writing about corporate social responsibility and those focusing on leadership with the newly published Responsible Leadership: Realism and Romanticism, a book she co-edited with British academic Steve Kempster.

A lot of what currently passes for leadership looks a lot like management, says Carroll.
"It's not about changing things; it's about making things go effectively or faster or more smoothly.

"It's about little issues of alignment and connecting projects and this other literature said: hey, who's going to ask the big questions?"

So, what should leadership look like today?

Carroll says by looking at leadership as asking big questions, you realise a lot of what has traditionally been understood as leadership is completely inadequate.

The past has focused on individual, charismatic leadership but today's problems are not going to be solved by just one person, she says.

"It's not about a responsible leader, it's about groups connecting and holding responsibilities.

"It's political work, it's forming alliances and coalitions, it's finding ways to speak across differences and boundaries, it's coordinating across multiple levels, from CEOs to grass roots.

"It's about multi-sector work, crossing out of the private sector, working with not-for-profit sector or the volunteer sector.

The world is full of leadership development programmes that look a bit formulaic

"A lot of the issues we need to face sit in that multisector, multi-lever - 'stakeholder' is the word they use.

"Let's stop thinking about leadership as about 'me managing my team' and let's start thinking about it as 'me in dialogue with multiple stakeholders all with their own agendas and interests and nonetheless we have to forge a way forward'."

Carroll says the book's "Romanticism vs Realism" title recognises there is something grandiose - "and we've got to be careful of grandiosity because it has plagued leadership for years" - about bringing coalitions of people together to tackle the world's problems.

"It's not putting people back on white horses and charging into war, and yet the realism bit is this work can kill you - it's such hard work.

"It can be feeling your way, trying to tentatively make relationships and thinking 'I don't want to work with them' or 'we don't believe in that stuff', and it can be inch-by-inch and it can go around in circles.

"It has a really different trajectory from the old style leadership, which looks like: 'I'm in a position of power and I'll set out in a direction and you'll all buy in'. It's just nothing like that."

She admits there are multiple ways of getting it wrong, but if the responsibility of leadership is held by an individual, the risk of getting it wrong is huge, whereas working collectively with a diverse group gives some hope of working through the challenges.

We're going to have to learn how to measure movement, conversations and outcomes, not just profit line.

Developing the capacity for people to work with diverse groups, across organisational boundaries and towards something new, should be the basis for leadership training, says Carroll, but too often keeping the lights on has been dressed up as leadership development.

"The world is full of leadership development programmes that look a bit formulaic," she says.

The value of leadership training was put under the spotlight recently by the Harvard Business Review, which described it as the "great training robbery".

It said American companies spent US$160 billion ($225b) in the US and close to US$356b globally last year on leadership training, without getting a good return on their investment.

"For the most part, the learning doesn't lead to better organisational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things," said HBR authors Michael Beer, Magnus Finnström and Derek Schrader.

Carroll says there has been an element of leadership training being used as a "highly cynical" remedy for the mid-life crisis in which staff - who thought they were rising through an organisation to more power and responsibility - come to realise that is beyond their reach. They are then offered leadership development to make them feel more personally effective.

"There's been a seductive quality about leadership development which is often about recognising the status of people and giving them some personal development," she says.

"Let's call that personal development and not leadership development."

And Carroll asks, if leadership development is focused on boundary-crossing disruptive work towards something new, then "how the hell do you measure that?".

"We're going to have to learn how to measure movement, conversations and outcomes, not just profit line."

- NZ Herald

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