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Unlocking the Secret Code of Leadership?

McKinsey and Company published an article in their quarterly business magazine entitled: Decoding Leadership: What Really Matters

Let me say from the outset that I’m an enthusiastic reader of the McKinsey Quarterly and I think they generally have some important things to say about the world of leadership development and its impact upon business success – albeit that their perspectives often lack a subtlety as they seek to generalise their findings to suit all circumstances.

However, the lack of a question mark at the end of the title of their article perhaps says everything about why I had such a negative gut response to the article in question.

‘Decoding Leadership’ –implies that it is possible to reduce leadership to its very essence, and through careful analyses of the data unlock its secret. It implies that but for the lack of more powerful algorithms we would surely be able to reveal the code – and in so doing programme a generation of leaders who will avoid the mistakes of their predecessors

In the space of less than 1000 words the authors set out to determine the kind of leadership behaviours that organisations should be encouraging and building into their leadership development programmes.

The sheer weight of the data is used as a blunt instrument to bludgeon the reader into accepting the validity of their conclusions. 189,000 people in 81 diverse organisations surely trumps any other research and justify the assertions contained within the article.

Yet dig a little further into the piece and we begin to unearth some troubling uncertainties:

“We’re not saying that the centuries-old debate about what distinguishes great leaders is over or that context is unimportant.”

“Experience shows that different business situations often require different styles of leadership.”

The added inter-changeability of the terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ doesn’t help to dispel concerns that all is not as certain as the title suggested. Add to that the authors’ assertion that earlier in the article they had indicated they were referring ‘frontline leaders’, only to become a much broader reference to all leaders later in the piece.

For the record, their research revealed four distinct leadership traits to be the most prevalent in high quality leadership teams, namely: solving problems effectively; operating with strong results orientation; seeking different perspectives; and, supporting others.

I have no argument about the importance of any of these traits – however, I do have a problem as soon as we begin to suggest that there is a hierarchy of behaviours, which should form the core of a leadership development programme.

My first concern is from my perspective as a former teacher and school principal, for I used to despair when I saw teachers ‘teaching to the middle’. These were individuals who saw it to be their job to ‘fit the child to the syllabus’, whereas great teachers saw it to be their job to make the ‘syllabus fit the child’ by taking into account every child’s own needs, strengths and requirements. Leaders are no different – we need to build programmes around the individual’s needs – not around the top four traits (what if I was already very competent in those aspects?)

Secondly, to suggest that there was a hierarchy of assets that you must have to be a successful leader, immediately excluded some of the most outstanding leaders I have encountered throughout my career.

My third concern, relates to the complete failure to reinforce the fact that no leadership behaviour exists in isolation from any other, for example, ‘solving problems effectively’ (trait 1) is inextricably linked to ‘being able to seek different perspectives’ (trait 4). We really risk creating exceptionally poor leadership development programmes if we break up the behaviours into discrete chunks – which might be easier to ‘teach’ but which lack any connection to the holistic world in which they are to be implemented.

Finally, and this is perhaps my greatest concern, is that there is no mention of the underlying value system that will underpin and connect these discrete behaviours. Without being embedded in such a clear context we run the risk of creating leadership automatons – who simply ‘select and play’ the leadership behaviours they have been programmed to display.

My own work with a smaller number of senior leaders (in comparison to the immensity of the McKinsey bulk) – would suggest that high quality leadership takes many forms. Even a brief analysis of some of history’s greatest leaders would throw up individuals who didn’t, or even couldn’t, demonstrate some of the key traits identified in the McKinsey article – think of Steve Jobs and how he did or didn’t support people around him; or Winston Churchill who only saw things from his own perspective. I’ve encountered great leaders whose key assets were completely contrary to those in the article, assets such as the capacity to inspire, imagination, and intuition come to mind.

So come on McKinsey and Company; let’s avoid the temptation to reduce everything to a simplistic formula just because your vast databanks can be manipulated in such a way as to make it possible. I thought better of you.