The expectations are high and the criticisms are frequent. One writer suggested the term "bad leader" is an oxymoron and by using such a term one does "a disservice to the noble ideal that being a leader is meant to hold." Many readers feel too many in charge (i.e., in management) simply "have no idea how to be a leader." One even confessed to being "guilty of expecting great leadership skills from upper management simply because of their titles."
The fact is, we would all like to work for a great leader. The unfortunate reality is most of us won't (it's a statistical thing). Most of us will have to be content with working for an "average leader", which really isn't so bad. Today, though, in many businesses, it does appear that the performance of too many leaders has dropped well below acceptable levels, leading to more "bad" leaders in the workplace than normal (forgive me, but I don't buy the 'noble ideal' concept).
From my perspective, there are 3 keys to improving the current state of leadership:
1. Adopt a commonly accepted definition of leadership
2. Keep performance expectations for leaders realistic
3. Change the "system" responsible for developing leaders
Key #1: A Common Definition of Leadership
When improving something, one needs a clear definition of the desired goal. In this case, we need a clear definition of leadership to guide the improvement process. Unfortunately, the editorial landscape is flooded with hundreds of definitions of leadership. Some include wise and sage advice from experienced leaders, but many are penned by individuals who have never been in a leadership position and the majority fall well short of providing enough clarity for use in an improvement process. Until we clearly define what leadership is, we will struggle to improve the current situation.
Key #2: Realistic Expectations of Leaders
As followers frustratingly chime in on the current state of leadership, their expectations for leaders are escalating to new heights. While it is healthy to vent opinions and frustrations, it is unproductive to create unrealistic expectations in the process. We must be careful in how we define expectations for leaders. Not every leader will or can be great. Leadership, like any other professional discipline, typically possesses a relatively normal distribution of performers. On a basic level, leaders (and managers) are responsible for delivering results . . . they are expected to deliver results safely, within the laws of the land and within the policies of the company. Before setting standards too high, followers should focus on being better followers. Doing so may be just what it takes to help a new or average leader become that special leader.
Key #3: Change the "System" Developing Future Leaders
There are three groups that make up the "system" responsible for producing adequately skilled leaders for today's business environment: academia, the training community and businesses themselves. One or more of these groups must change their approach, if we are going to improve the state of leadership. Currently, it appears the "system" either doesn't care or has defaulted to 'continuing to do what it has been doing and hoping for different results', which is not the formula for success.
Academia's primary role in the development process is to educate. Universities should remain focused on continually translating guidance provided by the business community into improved curriculum. Beyond that, academia gets a free pass in the improvement process. The training community and businesses themselves, on the other hand, do not.
The training community has predominately provided a "one size fits all", classroom solution. It's time to bring a better product to the table. One that blends 1 part education with 2 parts training & coaching. The current off-site, 2-5 day training course simply doesn't deliver effective results. It's time for the training community to go to the customer instead of bringing the customer to them. The training community must take their guidance from the business community much like academia and then supply a better product to their customer.
Finally, businesses themselves. The list of issues with this group is long. There are a few, though, that must be addressed up front, if improvement is to be made. First, businesses must accept primary responsibility for developing leaders (i.e., read, invest more). Second, businesses must stop expecting overloaded middle managers to play the lead and only role in coaching and developing upcoming leaders. Their platters are too full and they don't have the time or training to do the task. Either change those circumstances or go outside for help. Third, businesses must demand the training community deliver a better solution. Why do businesses still send candidates to a 3-5 day, off-site 'leadership training' course that yields no bottom-line results and causes the facility to operate short handed while doing so? And fourth, it's time businesses move more quickly to get rid of underperforming leaders. How does somebody survive for years failing to deliver results? How can underperforming managers be so invisible to upper management, while being so visible to those who work for them? Effective changes in the first 3 areas, will improve the pool of candidates for selection into leadership positions, mitigating the final issue.
The simple fact is that we do not have enough good leaders in business today. Until we change the "system" responsible for producing qualified leaders (i.e., the manner in which we teach, train and develop future leaders in our schools, businesses and the training community), we will continue to fall short. We are dealing with a "process" problem not a people problem. Leadership in business, at its basic level, is about guiding, directing, showing way to and inspiring employees to deliver results. It's time to get back to the basics, keep expectations in check and address the issue where it needs to be addressed. Doing so will put us on the path to delivering improved results, which is what good leadership does. Lead on!