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We value (and train) the wrong leaders

The leaders and managers we reward aren’t the ones who help us the most, evidence says. So who should we be looking for, and how do we train them?

If we’re put on the spot and asked to name a great leader it’s human instinct to think of someone singular, like Winston Churchill. Our memory enshrines those who seemed to have stood against impossible circumstances, elevated and alone.

Which is to say we tend to value great leaders for the wrong reasons. We ignore admirable traits – such as being a keen and smart delegator, or having a realistic sense of one’s own abilities – to focus on distinctive achievements. Martin Luther King Jr. is known for his “I have a dream” speech more than the collaboration required to be president of the SCLC.

Or, to bring things back to the modern workplace, “she really impressed in that meeting” is more powerful to us than “her team collaborates intelligently”.

Perhaps it’s an evolutionary tendency. If a prehistoric tribe needed to escape a fire, a leader who says “follow me, I know the way” is more useful than the empathic chap who says, “Debbie has a fine sense of direction, let’s see if she’s available”. But the more complex a situation gets, the more we should want that second person in charge.

Lone wolves in a rapidly changing world

The truth is that putting the world on your shoulders is a leadership style of questionable utility – especially when the pace of change is so fast

In a world where everyone’s role is so specialised, a lone wolf who assumes they have all the answers will make a lot of mistakes. For instance Elon Musk, who is often called a visionary, made a bet on massive automation for his car company Tesla that has resulted in significant production problems. All his brilliance wasn’t able to tell him the technology wasn’t capable of what he assumed it was, and that he should have delegated this decision to someone more in the know.

“Humans are underrated,” the billionaire now admits.

The best kind of leader

Aaron McEwan, HR advisory leader at Gartner, discusses an alternative to the lone wolf approach. He points to the “empowered execution” style favoured by US general Stanley McChrystal during his years in Afghanistan dealing with an unpredictable and decentralised enemy.

“One of the ways he [McChrystal] described it was, he had to empower troops on the ground to execute the order that they should have been given,” he says. “And I think that’s a wonderful analogy for where we are today. Leaders are a long way from the customer. And so they need to empower those people who are working with the customer.”

According to Gartner research, the best kind of leader isn’t revealed by a leadership profile. It’s a person who has shifted their mindset, activities and behaviours from driving their own personal results to striving for the organisation’s results.

These leaders can and analyse and know what the problems are, but they don’t assume they’re the right ones to fix them. McEwan refers to them as “Enterprise leaders”. They measure as more adaptable, more innovative, and more engaged.

How do I train the right kind of leader?

Like a lot of business terms “Enterprise leaders” is at risk of becoming jargon. So to make it more concrete, what it’s essentially referring to are the below three factors. They account for most of the variance in why leaders were not Enterprise leaders.

1. Mindset

“Those leaders who didn’t behave like enterprise leaders had a mindset about control. Essentially their view was ‘if you just give me more resources, autonomy and decision-making power I can go and do whatever you need for me to do’,” says McEwan.

Believing you can control a world as complex as ours is an illusion. Which is why it makes sense that non-Enterprise leaders lack awareness of what’s required in complex situations.

“If there’s a training solution it’s to teach leaders about complexity. To help break that mindset that they can control their way out of complexity. And to get them comfortable with taking broader perspectives,” says McEwan.

He points to the recent Australian cricket scandal. Somewhere in the heat of the tour they were on, he says, a winner-take-all mentality took over the team. They lost sight of the value fans placed on them, and thought only about the simple calculation: get a win, get rewarded.

2. Transparency

One of the reasons leaders don’t collaborate very effectively is they lack awareness into other leaders’ strengths, weaknesses and needs.

“If you think of how we train leaders now, we tend to focus on self-awareness,” says McEwan. “So we give them all sorts of assessments and leadership profiles to understand their strengths and weaknesses as an individual leader and then they go and work on that. And often in secret.”

“That would be the equivalent of a football team in an elite competition having every individual player have their own individual training coach,” he says. “And that’s the only training they did – improving their individual capability.”

In the corporate world individualised training means leaders don’t know who to go to for help, or who to offer support to. In order to overcome this organisations should think about training leaders together, as a team. Transparency can also be achieved in other ways.

“What we see progressive companies do is actually openly share leadership profiles. And being really transparent about, you know, ‘John over here has got skills in innovation but he’s not well organised, so there might be someone else on the team that John can work with that’s going to offset some of the risk of that profile’,” says McEwan.

3. Incentivisation

Most organisations don’t pay leaders to work together. This has the biggest impact on why organisations don’t have Enterprise leaders.

“We don’t pay leaders to collaborate, we pay them to hit their targets. So of course they’re going to go after those things. Sometimes at the expense of the broader organisational goals,” says McEwan.

He returns to the recent cricket scandal, pointing out that we select who will be on the national team based on individual results, and increase rewards in-line with wins. It’s the same in the world of work.

“We set people up to compete against each other, for limited promotional opportunities and for limited resources. And we set up their remuneration packages to reinforce that competition,” he says. “Then we expect them to play together well in the sandpit, and it just doesn’t happen.”

He notes that progressive companies change their remuneration and promotional structures to make sure collaboration, and the sharing of resources and talent, aren’t just recognised – they’re rewarded.

Zombie ideas

Enterprise leaders (and employees who behave the same way) drive much higher levels of profit, employee engagement, customer-service outcomes and so on – they are underrepresented in most organisation’s performance scores. Individual successes tend to be better tracked.

McEwan notes that Enterprise leaders have very strong reputations, but they don’t receive the greatest rewards. In other words, a lot of organisations don’t know who their best leaders are.


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Michael Boehm
Michael Boehm

While incomes and lifestyles are linked to such leaders we are “cursed” to their longevity and their ‘progenies’

Paul Ikutegbe
Paul Ikutegbe

This article once again brings to the fore the question, ‘Are we rewarding the right KSAs’? From a professional standpoint, it is very common for organisations to reward the manager with the loudest voice (individual achievements) rather than managers that help others to be better (collaborative achievements). The 360 degree feedback system can be used to target this issue if applied correctly. Even though it is difficult to have a 100% functional 360 degree feedback system, I believe organisations that try to implement the system are better off because they have the ability to capture data relating to collaborative traits… Read more »

Michael Sharp
Michael Sharp

Interestingly this article highlights an important strategic issue. How businesses define achievement at a board level and how we measure that achievement. Shareholders want enterprise level (collective) achievement yet generally the HR industry chunks this down to an individual, in a process not dissimilar to micromanagement. The view that if everyone individually meets their target, then business will meet it objectives, overlooks the flow on constraints to the business and customer of the individual’s decisions which are guided by their individual targets. Our leaders (the board) are to reactive to individual stakeholders who often have short term objectives and reporting… Read more »

Mary Tehan
Mary Tehan

“Enterprise leaders have very strong reputations, but they don’t receive the greatest rewards. In other words, a lot of organisations don’t know who their best leaders are” … so true.

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