Don’t become an elite leader!


27th June 2019

Don't become an elite leader! 

If there is one description that will send a shiver down the spine of any political leader, it is to be described as a member of an elite. It has become the ultimate criticism.

The word elite has become synonymous these days with a group of people who talk to themselves often in some geographical or social bubble, think they know best, are out of touch with those they lead and take for granted all sorts of privileges that others can have no hope of sharing. Self-centred, arrogant and self-serving, they are portrayed as members of some secret society, the antithesis of good leadership, only interested in self-preservation and self-aggrandisement. In the political world, when describing elites, there seems to be no longer any place for consideration or acknowledgement of the talents, hard work, commitment and courage that individuals inevitably must possess and exhibit if they are to have any chance of succeeding in leadership positions.

But what if this wave of criticism of political leaders as members of an elite were to spread to our organisations and businesses? How can we be sure that the culture and behaviours that politicians are vilified for do not exist in some form in our organisations? What if we start to think that our leaders are also in a bubble?

After all, the pace of change to more diverse and inclusive leadership representation in our organisations is moving very slowly, far too slowly for some. Women and ethnic minorities are still hugely under-represented. Leaders still tend to be white, male and in their fifties rather than their thirties. A glance at the HBR’s portrait gallery of top 100 CEOs in the will confirm this within seconds! Millennials openly express their frustration with the cautious and conservative approach to change and the reluctance to empower that characterises many organisational leaders. Control, hierarchy and status are still very much in evidence in many organisations.

So what can we learn from what we have witnessed recently in politics; what can our organisational leaders do to avoid being labelled as an elite?

Here are some ideas –

Seek, be open to and listen to feedback – leaders need to be interested in hearing what employees want to say. They need to actively set up and support mechanisms that encourage feedback and which give employees an opportunity to express what they think and how they feel about the company and the way it is working. Engagement surveys, 360°feedback can be useful but they cannot be relied upon if employees do not see their leaders willing to listen and understand their concerns

Talk to people outside your bubble – we all have bubbles of like-minded friends and colleagues. Social media encourages this. It is so easy to exchange with those people who see the world through the same lens as ourselves. What is needed is a conscious effort on the part of leaders to get out into the organisation, exchange more with more diverse people, seek out information from those that have a different experience of the world and enrich their experiential map. Reverse mentoring with younger employees seems to work for this very reason. Many leaders admit to getting more from it than they imagined.

Build a diverse leadership team – We all know that teams outperform individuals, yet so many executive teams are not only lacking diversity but also fail to function as a proper team. Failure to align at the top behind a common vision and goals results in so much wasted time and energy further down the organisation as people try to make sense of conflicting, personal or functional agendas. Strong teams consisting of talented, diverse, aligned individuals who trust and respect each other will make better decisions, execute more efficiently, respond more innovatively to complexity and ambiguity and hold each other accountable for delivering results. Any team that works in this way will gain the respect and trust of the organisation.

Be aware of the early signs of hubris- Hubris is an excessive pride and self-confidence born out of vanity and self-importance. Highly individualistic, arrogant leaders who rise to the top of organisations are particularly prone to hubris. It is characterised by the need to dominate and always be at the centre of discussions, decisions and activities and the tendency to take credit for success even if it is others who may have done the work. Hubris leads to a progressive loss of interest in and contact with reality and inevitably isolates individuals. Two common signs of potential hubris are over-reacting when anyone challenges your view or decisions and when you notice that no-one any longer says you might be wrong. Self-awareness, regular feedback and strong teams are the counter-balances that will keep hubris in check.

Actively solicit the views of others – Tom Peters once famously said that “your most valuable employee is the one that disagrees with you the most” because as was said above, we are all very good at listening to and talking to the people who are in our bubble. Leaders need to consciously burst their bubbles and expose themselves to different views and more diverse experiences

Get close to the core activities of your organisation – too many leaders fail to get out of their offices and see what is happening where customers are being served and money is being made. Too happy to rely on reports from others and spreadsheets, leaders can quickly get out of touch. But I’m not advocating the “presidential visit” which is worse than useless, because it never bears any resemblance to reality. Leaders need to get out incognito and unannounced and at the times no-one would expect. They will always learn something and their people will respect them more.

Experience anonymously the products and services of your organisation – linked to the point above, this will help leaders get the true sense of what their customers are experiencing, what frustrates them and what delights them. This information and feedback is one of the most valuable sources of insight and understanding a leader can get and it nearly always prompts new thinking and ideas.

Be careful about privileges and benefits – most people understand that with added responsibilities come added benefits but when the evidence suggests and the sense grows that there are some rules for leaders and others for the rest, leaders will quickly lose credibility. Leaders must not actively and openly abuse company policies or put themselves above the standards that others are expected to heed. Making the effort to share rewards as widely as possible, especially with those that have shown real effort and commitment and creating a culture of recognition is so simple to do and means a lot to those who receive it.

Being a respected and effective leader continues to be a demanding role, especially at a time when expectations are changing so rapidly. But maybe this is the core problem? Maybe the time is coming for effective leadership to become synonymous with the ability to build and work through strong, diverse leadership teams. The job is too big and the risks too great for any individual to do.

Graham Stickland, Contact Consulting

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