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Jon Cowell

Edgecumbe Consulting Group

Director And Corporate Practice Lead

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Putting leadership under the magnifying glass


Why leadership development needs to be company-wide, focussed on self-awareness and enhanced interpersonal skills.

Leadership response to recession

We conducted two studies with managers of UK headquartered organisations in 2011 and 2013, totalling around 400 respondents, looking at the way UK leaders in the private sector are responding and contributing to the economic recovery. One of our key findings was a polarisation of opinions on leaders’ effectiveness in 2013 compared to 2011: whilst overall average levels of confidence were unchanged fewer people were undecided and thus both the positive and negative responses grew in numbers.

We hypothesised that this polarisation results from the increased attention on leadership throughout and following the economic recession. As Warren Buffett put it “after all, you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out." The economic challenges of the past six years have provided a stern test of leadership for many businesses and thereby offered us clearer evidence of its strengths and weaknesses than we usually have available.

Increase in scrutiny and understanding

Since the recession, leadership has been under the magnifying glass and people are more educated about what it is that leaders do, and should do. Not only that, but leaders are under more scrutiny about how they do those things that they need to do.

Leaders’ behaviours and attitudes are becoming more important to people throughout their organisations as hierarchies are becoming flatter and leaders are becoming more visible and accessible. People have greater and clearer expectations of their leaders, and not just those ‘pesky and demanding’ Gen Ys!

So what is the magnifying glass showing us?

In terms of leadership tasks, we asked 200 managers in 2013 to rate their leaders’ effectiveness at performing eight tasks of leadership taken from the Primary Colours Leadership Model. The areas where leaders are seen to be strongest fit exactly with a strong task focus: setting goals, defining how to reach them and driving for results. Those where leaders are seen to be weakest are the tasks associated with engaging and working with other people.  Specifically, evaluations of leaders’ capabilities in creating alignment, building and sustaining relationships and team working are even more critical than we found in 2011. 

This pattern is consistent with a ‘command and control’ style of leadership.  Leadership research indicates that this style is most commonly effective in crisis situations: those where clarity and immediate action are crucial, and where there is no time to involve and engage people.  However, the same research also indicates that, over time, this style is associated with lower levels of employee engagement, discretionary effort, innovation and productivity. 

“Troubling, but not unexpected”

These results are troubling, but not unexpected. In a 2012 study of 4,500 managers CMI and Penna found that 43% of managers reported that they considered their line manager to be ineffective or highly ineffective. What is perhaps most revealing about our findings is the way in which they make explicit the nature of that ineffectuality: it is in the interpersonal domain of leadership – the domain of building relationships, influencing people and getting things done in teams – that UK leaders are seen to be most inept. 

“Distributed downwards”

A substantial majority of the respondents in our 2013 study continue to believe that improving the quality of leadership would enhance their organisation’s prospects, and we found evidence that an increasing (though still small) number of organisations are making investment in leadership capability a high priority.  Yet we also found evidence that this investment is mainly focused on just the most senior managers and a select group of ‘high potentials’, rather than a systematic effort to improve all leaders’ skills.  Because it is the direct manager relationship which drives engagement most, we think this represents a missed opportunity: it leaves the majority of managers untouched by the investment.  We argue that leadership development and leadership itself needs to be distributed downwards in organisations, not just reserved for those at the top. 

“Strengths-based approach”

The strengths-based approach to leadership  and studies of the impact of leaders ‘overdoing’ certain behaviours have brought into focus the notion that it is difficult for any individual leader to sustain excellence in all aspects of leadership, and damaging to try to do so.  Instead, it suggests, we should encourage leaders to focus personally on doing those things they can do best, and work with others who bring those capabilities they lack so that together they cover the territory which a single leader cannot hope to.

The distributed leadership approach therefore places importance on leaders’ capacity to collaborate with others who bring the capabilities they lack, i.e. to work effectively with those who are most different from them – this is no easy fix! Yet it holds out the hope that all kinds of people can become effective leaders, if they are able to surround themselves with others who bring what they lack and can find ways to collaborate with them.  This then is perhaps our most pressing challenge for the coming years: how to develop leaders to work constructively with difference in order to build diverse leadership and management teams.

In order to meet this challenge leadership development needs to be focussed more on improving self-awareness and interpersonal skills. Leadership development also needs to filter down through organisations using a common and simple language in order that managers at all levels can develop the personal skills to work effectively together as leaders and help their people to thrive.

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Jon Cowell

Director And Corporate Practice Lead

Read more from Jon Cowell

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