Thursday, March 20, 2008

Leaders or followers?

Leadership is a difficult activity: You have to work out what the reality of the environment is; try to predict what will happen over the coming period; decide what possibilities exist or what latitude for action exists; work out where you want to take the company, organisation or country; articulate the same in a way that everyone understands and can buy into; decide the appropriate time scale; methods and so on.

It's a difficult job even in the best of times. However when the environment starts to change or become volatile leading gets really tough. Things are made considerably harder when leaders find it difficult to separate reality from perception. Harder still when emotions start to alter our view of reality.

The research (press release here) I referred to in the last blog has showed that whilst just about all leaders say that they make decisions based on the data, 4 out of every 5 leaders recognise that these decisions , especially in uncertain situations, usually have a heavy emotional basis.

My question is how do leaders learn to make decisions in difficult and uncertain situations?
The answer appears to be not through any formal process. One leader told me:

"A university education is a good start and an MBA helps however it never prepares you for dealing with uncertainty. In fact it makes things worse.You tend to leave thinking that the answers are in the data. In hard times all the data in the world won't help you a jot. It's how you see things and how you fool yourself, and we all do, that counts. Their way of thinking is great for stable times but if you follow their guidance when things are less stable you are going to end up in a lot of trouble."
Another leader stated:

"It is important that people believe I know what I am doing. I have to admit that like many people, when things are foggy you can't in all honesty say I do know what I am doing. I think we all just trust to luck a bit and cast about and see what others are doing. I know it's not satisfactory but what can you do when things are changing so fast?"

"What I have learned since taking control of the service is that all the research and models you get fed in training and from college are historical. Not one of them tells you what to do when things have changed or when they are changing. New situations need new thinking, not old research and education. I would place the ability to make good decisions in the face of ambiguity and to be able to think new thoughts in new situations as the number one leadership attributes these days, not the degree someone has." Reported a CEO

Agile Leadership is the ability to be able to lead well in difficult and ambiguous situations, the very circumstances others are clueless in. There is precious little formal preparation for leadership in uncertain times anywhere in the world, which is why leaders are increasingly looking to each others for answers. We run Agile Leadership programs and modules (PDF version)designed to fit in with existing leadership training or as stand alone packages, that develop these attributes. The growing popularity of these events is testimony to the need for something different in formal education and training. I am not saying what is going on now is wrong. It is useful and has it's place. It just doesn't equip people for difficult times, dealing with uncertainty and rapid change where they need to solve problems, make good decisions and lead when everyone else is sat around wondering what to do next; just waiting to see what everyone else is doing (just like the current economic situation where rumour and volatility are rampant). That is being a follower not a leader.

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