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Leadership theories unmasked

Of all of today’s leadership theories, which ones really count?

Throughout my 20 years in leadership development, I’ve always challenged the industry’s status quo. Too often, I meet leaders who subscribe to a trend because they believe it’s a magic bullet.

It’s important to consider new literature, ideas and debate. However, we shouldn’t be so diverted by the latest leadership theory that we lose sight of the fundamentals of what shapes a good leader.

Our commitment to enabling leaders to embrace disruption is why my team at Maximus invited controversial Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, to speak at our 2017 Fire Up The Future leadership experience. Many of his views appear to diverge from ours. However, a long conversation revealed we’re more aligned than I thought.

Like Maximus, he believes our industry is failing leaders and their businesses. We explored this topic in a recent white paper about Australia’s leadership crisis. We lag our OECD peers for innovation, strategic orientation and employee engagement, indicating that traditional leadership development is not meeting today’s challenges.

Pfeffer’s research reveals this is happening in the US and globally, despite numerous research projects, speeches, conferences and reports.

He sees some core issues as:

  • A lack of industry governance and accountability
  • Too much emphasis on almost mythological success stories and not enough on reality
  • Too little focus on core management and leadership attributes that count

I agree that leadership development must move beyond half-truths towards providing true insights and more realistic expectations, but have my own perspective regarding how to do this, and the characteristics that matter. Pfeffer’s unrelenting focus on evidence-based management — where management decisions are more evidence-based and leaders keep their gut instincts in check — resonated with me. This discipline plays a valuable role in improving leaders’ choices and judgment. Without it, they are risking failure.

Interestingly, Jeffrey did not support leaders being authentic or vulnerable, believing the outcomes are unrealistic expectations, disappointment and disillusion. I see the challenge and think it comes down to judging when and how to show vulnerability. I’ve often seen leaders execute this poorly. If their vulnerability is inauthentic and they’ve not done the work to understand who they are, it can be more damaging than inspiring. With help, leaders can unlock and tap into their true authenticity in a way that shapes culture.

It’s great that Pfeffer has shone a much-needed light on the leadership industry. It’s time to dig beneath the surface of commonly accepted theories and determine the truly relevant leadership attributes for now and the future.

Here’s my personal take on four leadership theories that I consider to be influential and sustainable. Combined with strong management skills, they create a leader for our times: one who takes care of themselves, their teams and their organisation.

Four top leadership attributes

  1. Purpose-led leadership

    Is essential at a strategic and personal level. It provides employees with a reason to go above and beyond, and individual leaders with a compass for effective, ethical use of power and influence. Bill George (author of Authentic Leadership) and Bruce Avolio are pioneers in this field. More recently, Simon Sinek has built his career around helping leaders discover the ‘why’ of leadership, which is where I always start with clients.

  2. Authenticity

    Makes the difference between a leader whom people trust and one who is disconnected from the workforce. I’ve written before about how important authenticity is for key aspects of modern leadership, such as culture transformation, but I acknowledge that it’s possible to be too authentic. Hermina Ibarra articulated this paradox well in her piece for the Harvard Business Review.

  3. Strategic clarity and agility

    Is about leveraging data and insight to deliver perspective and make choices. At a strategic level, this should happen not just inside but outside the organisation too, with senior leaders spending significant time in the market. They will discover future insights that help their businesses – and themselves — to pivot and change with emerging needs and opportunities. Agility is a well-covered future capability, yet without strategic clarity, it cannot flourish.

  4. Evidence-based decision making

    Is Jeffrey Pfeffer’s area of expertise, as explained in his books Leadership BS and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense. He argues that many business decisions are based on instinct, intuition or copying others, with no questioning of commonly accepted organisational tenets. I think he has a point, given our natural human limitations.

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