Follow the leader: a dangerous game for businesses to play when mediocrity prevails

Leadership

Australia’s organisations are facing a leadership crisis, according to a management consultant who claims mediocrity prevails because too few businesses cultivate the necessary behaviours in the people they promote.

Speaking to Dynamic Business, Anthony Mitchell, co-founder of strategic advisory firm Bendelta, provided a frank assessment of organisational leadership in Australia. He also highlighted the leadership model organisations should aspire to embed, and suggested how start-up founders can develop critical leadership skills.

Dynamic Business: What is the current state of organisational leadership in Australia and abroad?

Anthony Mitchell: When Cate Campbell recently set a new world record of 52.06 for the100m freestyle, she swam faster than Mike Wenden did when he became the last Australian man to lift the Olympic 100m free crown in 1968 (at altitude in Mexico City). This is just one example of how standards across many fields of human endeavour – from technology and science to professional sports – have improved over the decades.

That’s not the case with organisational leadership. Yes, there have been improvements in some areas, but these have been glacial and highly inconsistent compared to elite fields of achievement. This malaise is not endemic to Australian companies – it is global. Across the majority of organisations, the average standard of leadership is mediocre, and highly variable between individuals at the same level. When one considers how pivotal leadership is to organisational performance, such mediocrity is indefensible.

Part of the problem is that it is difficult to pinpoint the precise impact of excellent leadership on a business. In a professional sport such as tennis, we know that Djokovic, Federer and Murray play tennis better than their contemporaries. We know because we see their win rates. And if that wasn’t enough, we can see the quality of their play with our eyes. In business, it’s more complex: weeks, months and years can separate a leader’s actions from the consequences, making it murky when it comes to attributing a company performance to the quality of its leadership. Was a good outcome the result of leadership or was it due to the market, history or simply luck?

The second problem is that we don’t have a perfect picture of what great leadership looks like. Everyone knows what a great tennis serve looks like. And those of us who have a mediocre serve will immediately accept that we are not up to Djokovic’s standard. But when it comes to leadership, we can all fool ourselves that our leadership is up to scratch. And so that is what we do. Unlike a Nobel prize-winning scientist, a professional golfer or a chess grandmaster, we put in a fraction of the effort and discipline into our improvement. And this is why our economy inches forward at 2-3%, while other fields make giant leaps. This is particularly challenging for small businesses, which often have even less access to information on what great leadership looks like and how to improve their own leaders.

DB: Are organisations invested in up-skilling the staff they promote to leadership positions?

AM: Most major corporations have leadership development programs, which do a reasonably good job of helping emerging leaders understand what it means to lead. But the majority of them don’t do nearly enough of what they are intended to – building capability and changing behaviour. The unfortunate likelihood is that many leaders who make it to the top of the corporate ladder still have some of the same leadership weaknesses that they had when they were middle managers. A small proportion of companies make the necessary investment of time, money and effort – and have a great cadre of senior leaders as a result.

DB: What are the leadership ‘must-haves’ today and what will be required of leaders in the future?

AM: A hundred years ago, people took a job for life, progressed on the basis of tenure and faced a level of competition that would today be regarded as luxurious. They had no internet and no smartphones – there was a hierarchy of information and communication, an asymmetry that protected leaders from critique. Today, the best organisations have dispensed with command-and-control leadership. Indeed, the likes of Uber, Google and others have succeeded by being very flat and virtually borderless. Each employee has access to the same information as their leader and knows what the rest of the world has to offer.

In this world, nobody follows a leader simply because their title anymore. The greatest source of competitive advantage is people’s talent combined with discretionary energy. Accordingly, if they are to drive superior business results, leaders must understand the (often irrational) drivers of employees’ engagement, motivation and performance.

The science of psychology is therefore profoundly important to improving leadership – not just in terms of describing effective leadership (based on validated studies) but more importantly, by identifying what it takes to change leaders’ behaviour. Machinery is part of this answer. We would love to wake up on time each morning, but we find that a piece of machinery – an alarm clock – is much better. Sports teams now use a vast array of machines for every aspect of performance analysis. Technology can help us see our opportunities for improvement, give us dispassionate feedback on technique and help us stay the course of change.

As we look through the remainder of this decade and into the next, the rise of machine learning will mean that technology becomes even more central to business performance than it is today. The most important traits of leaders, therefore, will be those that cannot be replicated by robots or computers. Top of the list of critical leadership traits for the next decade will be empathy, collaboration, creativity and the ability to inspire.

DB: Take a start-up founder who starts out working alone but later hires employees to manage the rapid growth of their business – how does this person suddenly go from being an entrepreneur to also being a leader of people?

AM: The key is to be willing to make personal change – to get objective, continuous feedback on how they can improve. There was a time when commentators said Djokovic would always be a tier below Federer and Nadal. They said this for a variety of reasons, including issues with temperament, fitness and tenacity. With 12 Grand Slams today and the highest career earnings in history, everyone agrees that he achieved a great metamorphosis. How did he get there? Simple: he was willing to do whatever it took to become the best – from training regimes and diet to getting feedback on his shortcomings and accepting that he needed to change if he was ever to become number one.

A start-up founder will need to recognise that great success does not mean that his/her leadership is perfect. They will need to find ways to get the feedback that nobody has ever given them and be prepared to act on it. They should not only get a coach but also find a role model – someone to emulate – and undertake formal development as well. They may want to get in better physical shape, develop a healthier lifestyle and introduce stress management methods too – they will have more success developing their leadership if the basics are in good shape. In summary, if they want to be an outstanding leader, why would they choose the habits of an amateur over those of a professional?