Business leaders facing the same leadership challenges as political leaders
Getting back to basics!
In June, I was in London to meet my publisher and discuss the launch of my new book ”The Human Way” which will be launched this month (August) in the UK and in October in the USA. The day I was there the citizens of the UK went to the polls to decide if they would remain in the EU or leave. It was a bit strange waking up the next morning in a country that had just voted to leave the European Union. Despite the fact that the “leave” faction got the most votes, London was one of the regions that clearly wanted to remain in the EU. Everyone I met there was in a state of shock.
When I got to my meeting I met 6 people from my publisher who all had a big need to vent. They just couldn’t understand what had happened. The people at the meeting were all somewhere between 25 and 35 years old and for them the EU was a given. They had never lived in a UK that wasn’t a part of the EU. Unlike many older Brits who voted to leave the EU, this was not a return to a safer more secure world; it was to go from the relative security of the known to the insecurity of the unknown. These young people couldn’t understand how older people, many of whom would probably not even be alive when the decision to leave the EU would actually be implemented, could have so much influence on their future. I suppose you can’t say much else than that democracy can be very complicated.
From a leadership perspective it is clear that something interesting has been going on in many countries for some time now. For me it has been most obvious in the USA and the UK but the tendencies have been noticeable in many countries. Political leaders seem to have lost touch with their constituents. Many countries have developed groups of elite career politicians who don’t have their fingers on the pulse of the people they represent. Many people talk about having to choose between the lesser of two evils when they got to vote. They feel that none of the candidates really represent their interests so they have to choose the “least bad” candidate or party. The result being that it becomes difficult for any party to get a strong enough mandate to really implement their political agenda.
President Obama did win the presidential election twice but both times his power was limited because the American people made sure he didn’t have the support of congress. You might say that this was a precautionary action by the people. The voters in the USA created a situation where congress had difficulty getting anything done and when the conservatives in congress did push legislation through it was often blocked by the President. In the same way the President had enormous difficulty getting his policies executed with congress. I don’t necessarily mean that the voters consciously collaborated on this strategy, but we can nonetheless conclude that the American people lacked enough confidence in either party’s political platform to give either of them a strong mandate.
A similar situation has arisen in many European countries where no single party or political block gets enough votes to implement their political agenda. Many European countries have struggled with complicated minority alliances that have severely limited the ability of any party actually getting anything done.
I wonder if we don’t see much of the same phenomena in many of our organizations. Many of our businesses and government organizations are run by the same type of elite career managers who have also lost contact with their employees.
A number of studies show that employees’ confidence in their managers is very low and this ultimately limits the manager’s ability to execute their agendas in the same way as in the political arena. I don’t want to imply that there is necessarily anything wrong with career politicians or career managers. It may well be so that our countries and our businesses are so complicated that they require specialist competence gained over a long time to lead them. But the competence that is most important for success as a politician or a manager is leadership and a prerequisite for successful leadership is the confidence of those who follow the leader. Without this underlying confidence from employees or voters, leadership will be ineffective at best and in the worst case it can become destructive as exemplified in the British decision to leave the EU or the support that a catastrophe candidate like Trump has been able to accumulate in the USA. The same destructive tendencies arise in our businesses but they don’t usually get the same mass media attention so they often go unobserved by everyone except for those who work in the organization.
The question is what we can do to improve the legitimacy of the leadership with those who are to be led?
In my book “The Human Way” I present a tetrahedron or ”pyramid” as I often wrongly call it. This pyramid was created when I put Edward Deci’s triangle describing the fundamentals of extrinsic motivation together with Sven Kylén’s triangle describing the characteristics of high performing teams.
Deci’s triangle describes motivation in individuals but does not address the group’s need to achieve a purpose or results. Kylén’s triangle on the other hand describes the group’s need for balance between autonomy, belonging and the need to strive toward its purpose or goals but doesn’t consider the individuals need for a sense of competence in order to maximize their own intrinsic motivation. By combining these two models I identified 4 fundamental elements from both an individual and group perspective that are crucial for the success of all leaders. Leaders who want to succeed must focus on supporting the individual’s intrinsic motivation by increasing their autonomy, belonging and competence while providing clarity and unity around the group’s purpose and/or goals.
Based on this model, we can see that many of our politicians as well as the leaders of many of our businesses fail on most of these success factors. In the political sphere and many of our work places we find weak or non-existing understanding of the purpose or the goals of the group. It is worth noting that in order to create unity around common goals or purpose we must first share certain core values. Our goals and our purpose must always be aligned with these common core values. Our goals and purpose should of course always lead towards improvement and creating a better world. But if we do not agree on what needs to be improved or what ”better” looks like, we will not be able to stand behind the goals or initiatives required to achieve those improvements. If the group doesn’t share at least some basic common values they will never be able to agree on a common direction or common goals.
Some people in the political arena see it as a given that we should support people fleeing from war while others are equally convinced that we must protect our own national interests and maintain our uniqueness and culture. As one woman commented the Brexit vote on the British news “we are British people, we don’t want other types of people coming here and taking over everything”. All our efforts towards unifying the group around common actions, goals or purpose will fail if we do not share relatively similar common values.
An additional challenge is that creating common values and agreeing on a common purpose often requires new competencies. If an individual has no knowledge or the wrong knowledge about business issues facing them (or political issues for that matter) they will invariably come to the wrong conclusions. It falls on leaders to communicate skillfully and factually to the people in their organizations about the challenges confronting the organization. Leaders must also provide education in order for employees to gain the necessary competencies in order to understand and successfully address these challenges.
A sense of relatedness or belonging is an equally significant factor in politics and in business organizations. The majority of British citizens voted against membership in the European Union. Soon after that, factions from France, Holland and other countries began suggesting that their countries should also leave the EU and a loud minority in Texas suggested that Texas leave the USA. Back in the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland announced that they might not want to continue belonging to the United Kingdom because their voters had clearly indicated a desire to remain in the EU. If individuals don’t feel a sense of belonging with the group they won’t be motivated for the goals of the group. Similarly, if an individual doesn’t buy into the goals and purpose of the group they will not feel a sense of belonging to the group. In short, without a shared sense of belonging between individuals and unity around a common purpose there will be no group.
Lastly, we come to the concept of autonomy. In the strictest sense autonomy means having control over your own life. In the context of a group, autonomy means involvement, influence and participation. In order for an individual to maintain a sense of autonomy in a group they must feel that their needs, ideas and desires are respected. The individual must feel that they can participate in and influence the life of the group. Without a true sense of involvement the individual will feel alienated because their autonomy is threatened and will intellectually and emotionally leave the group even if they may remain in the group in a physical sense. In other words, an employee who does not feel that they are provided with an opportunity to impact the direction and decisions in their company may well remain in the company in order to get their paycheck but their productivity will fall to the minimum level necessary to maintain employment or they will simply search for another employer where they feel a greater sense of autonomy and participation. Individuals in the group who become alienated tend to either abdicate or they move to another group. It should come as no surprise that people migrate towards groups where they feel seen and where their voice is heard. Evidence of the fact that many people abdicate in the political environment can be seen in the low voter participation in many countries. Many people feel that their vote doesn’t really matter and that no one is interested in their opinions anyway. Likewise many people feel that their opinions are insignificant in their work environment. People who feel marginalized in a group may gather in new groups where they feel they have a greater influence. This is evident both in the new and sometimes frightening voices in many countries’ politics as well as in the often informal groups that evolve within a business.
Tips for getting back to the basics of leadership.
- Leaders must work consistently over a long period of time with training and communication. Uninformed people will always make uninformed decisions.
- Leaders need to be less focused on driving their own agendas and instead learn to listen to people and take their ideas, dreams and concerns seriously.
- Create as much opportunity for individual involvement as possible. Delegate everything you can. Don’t ask why should I delegate this, ask why not? This will be difficult but it’s much better than failing.
- Experiment with new decision processes: Technology has made it possible for large groups to participate in the decision process. Sometimes the group can make decisions; other times they can at least have an opportunity to influence decisions. (I have often felt that I wouldn’t want to work somewhere where they didn’t listen to what I had to say. But, if they listen to what I have to say I can usually live with the organization not always doing what I want.) In other words, being listened to is much more important than getting our way!
- Be visible and present. There is a strong correlation between visibility and confidence. It is difficult to have confidence in managers who are distant and invisible. Leaders need to be out among their followers. Many times what you actually say or do is less important than the fact that you are present. A cup of coffee with a group of employees can have a significantly greater impact for your leadership than a kickoff at the best hotel.