Some weeks ago, we attended a book launch hosted by our friends at Knowledge Resources (we were invited to the function as we are the authors of one of the books that was being launched). At this event, five books were introduced. Four of these were on leadership, and one on project management. Why so many books on leadership? After all, if one just searches the internet, or libraries at academic institutions, there are literally tens of thousands of new books and articles being published on leadership every year. Surely humanity must have figured out by now what leadership is all about?
In our individual and collective work we have for the last decade or more studied, worked with and consulted to clients on leadership in organisations. Have what we done really made a difference? Of course we have some anecdotal evidence that it has made a difference to individuals (and we are thankful for the feedback), and we have some research based evidence that it has made a difference to our clients (we are thrilled that there is scientific “proof” that improved leadership has a demonstrable business impact). And yet, at the level of larger systems there is still a leadership crisis.
The Leadership Crisis
We do not wish to restate all of the evidence that there is a leadership crisis. The failings of leadership (and leaders) in the spheres of global economics and politics is well documented. At a national level, it has become a national pastime to ridicule government at all levels, more often than not fully justified. At the level of individual organisations, every survey or focus group at some stage highlights the failings of leaders and leadership. There is a global and local belief that there is a scarcity of leadership “talent”, and there is even some research that supports this perception. We may safely assume therefore that despite all the research, publications, assessment instruments and development programs focused on building leadership excellence we have still not cracked the code of great leadership. Why would this be the case?
The Followership Crisis
From at least two perspectives, we think that trying to solve issues related to the leadership crisis may be better resolved by thinking about it as a followership crisis. Consider the following question:
- Why would the corruption / indiscretions / failings of leaders provide justification for me to behave the same way?
- If the president misappropriates money, and I criticise him for being wrong, why can I then do the same?
- If my manager uses foul language, why should I start swearing like a sailor?
- If my fellow road user exceeds the speed limit, why does this give me license to do the same?
- Why do I expect of leaders to be “better” than me, to set the example?
- What gives me the justification to expect leaders to be perfect human beings, or as close to it as possible?
Leaders are being dealt a double whammy with this thinking, namely (1) you had better behave better than me every second of every day (and I will watch you closely!) or (2) I will use your failings to justify my own. Our conversations with people at all levels provide a different perspective.On the one hand, leaders and managers in businesses share with us on an almost daily basis their frustrations because employees simply do not take responsibility and do the work they are appointed (and paid for) with the necessary care. Apparently, in private hospitals in South Africa, 70% of the deaths of people admitted to intensive care have nothing to do with what got them to hospital in the first place, but with lack of aftercare (cleaning of wounds, turning of patients, etc.). This happens because someone simply does not do their job.On the other hand, at an assignment with a client one of their employees assigned to the project said to us “I have worked here for 23 years, and whether I work or not I will still get my salary at the end of the month”.So, leaders express a concern that people do not do their work, and people say it does not matter if they don’t!
The Me Crisis
We appear therefore to have two interrelated crises, one of leadership and one of followership. This was also a topic we addressed in a recent article “Leadership Darkside: Why do good leaders go bad?” In the article we concluded that followers surround bad leaders, and that bad leadership isn’t possible without bad followers. Bad leadership is further re-enforced by the choices of those who follow that leader – e.g. followers that tolerate manipulation and mistreatment by a leader.
However difficult it may be, perhaps we need to confront the reality that this is in the final analysis about each one of us individually. It is how I think about me as me BEFORE I start thinking about me as the follower or me as the leader. At this level, the question finally is a simple one. Do I really try each day to be the best me that I can possibly be?
Instead of finding the cause / justification / blame for my behavior in someone else, why not have the crucial conversation with myself? This in itself is seldom an easy or pleasant conversation. It is tough to face yourself and ask this crucial question to the person in the mirror.