Changing behavior requires altering the people in one’s social network. Moreover, changing the physical cues that influence behavior is another important intervention. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Often we hear CEOs saying they need a more ‘inspirational’ presentation on leadership to motivate their senior management team. According to them, content based on the realities of organisational life and related social science research isn’t uplifting enough.

Such views are common in the leadership development industry. Many such programmes feature well-known speakers telling compelling life stories about overcoming various physical or economic challenges. There are also events that feature speakers narrating examples of leaders who apparently are modest, authentic, take care of others, tell the truth, and build trust, among other virtues. We say ‘apparently’ because leaders are often quite successful at creating public personas that differ significantly from the reality of actually working with them.

Less engaged at workplaces

Power is the organisation’s last dirty secret, but it is also the secret to individual and organisational success. Telling inspiring fables don’t develop either the knowledge or the skills that help people become more effective in getting things done.

The pervasive feel-good approach to leadership development may explain why it is not effective. A Gallup study says just 30 per cent of employees are engaged at work, 17 per cent are actively disengaged and the rest - 53 per cent - in the ‘not engaged’ group. A 2018 survey reported that 80 per cent of employees could do their jobs without their managers and only 53 per cent thought their managers cared about their wellbeing, while an Edelman report found that 63 per cent of executives felt their CEOs were somewhat or not at all credible.

Leadership development is a multi-billion dollar industry, but mostly remains a wasted enterprise resources. Isn’t it time to change this and do things differently?

The big problem is that inspiration is a goal of many leadership development agenda, but it is a poor method to achieve lasting change. The temporary motivational high wears off. Social psychology research shows that social environments affect behaviour.

Changing behavior requires altering the people in one’s social network. Moreover, changing the physical cues that influence behavior is another important intervention. There are new tools available now to push people to engage in ‘better’ leader behaviours, under the theory that appropriate behaviour will drive productive change.

A complete absence in workplaces?

The qualities that leadership programmes relentlessly advocate, albeit wonderful, are frequently absent in contemporary political and corporate leaders. Modesty and contemporary business leaders don’t seem to go together.

Decades of research shows that narcissism, not modesty, is correlated with being hired, being promoted, job tenure, and, sometimes, group performance. The disconnect between what leadership development programmes advocate and what people see - often in their immediate environments from their own senior leaders - produces a high degree of cynicism and a reluctance to accept the lessons proffered.

All leadership development efforts would be well-served to change the emphasis from aspirational qualities - that are not only rare - but often not helpful to a focus on pragmatic skills such as the ability to exude presence, build useful networks, create valuable resources, and tolerate not being liked that are associated with many success metrics.

Leaders need to get things done. Period. An important focus of leadership development efforts needs to be teaching people in leadership roles how to understand and use the principles of power and influence essential to make things happen.

Retention of learning should be an important part of any leadership development effort so that resources aren’t wasted on transitory effects.

Hone this skill too

Gerald Ferris, co-author of ‘Political Skill at Work’, has developed a political skills inventory and conducted numerous studies showing how such a skill is associated with career success and leadership effectiveness. Leaders who don’t master organisational politics don’t stay in their roles very long. And many career derailments occur when people reach organisational levels where jobs entail much more interdependence that requires being able to influence others.

Power and influence concepts do a much better job of helping people understand what they see in the organisational and social world around them and becoming more effective at making things happen. Far from Jack Nicholson’s famous line in the movie ‘A Few Good Men’, not only can people handle the truth, educational efforts rooted in the hard truths of leadership, even if occasionally challenging or unpleasant, are much more likely to produce better leader effectiveness.