Every once in a while we get things twisted around backward and the world begins to feel odd. Like waking up with your pyjama bottoms twisted half-way round. Or worse yet, someone gives you a “wedgie” (at least that’s what we called it in high school in the 60’s – ask your parents if you haven’t got a clue).
Over the past few decades this thing called leadership has been twisted around to the point where not only does it not feel very good, it just plain doesn’t work very well! We have such common phrases as “charismatic leadership”, “superstar leaders”, “rockstar leaders”, “Uber-leadership”, as well as courses and programs for leadership development, executive leadership training and even MBA classes in leadership. The New York Times best seller list is full of books about leadership.
This focus on leaders and leadership as front and center has even morphed into how we think about the leadership team. The concept of a team of superstars and the executive super-team is everywhere. CEOs are asking the global recruiting companies to find them executive candidates with “great leadership skills” and they have responded with a myriad of assessments and psychological profiles to identify such candidates.
Yet the truth is, there is no study that I have run across that conclusively points to the fact that strong, charismatic, rockstar leadership equates with sustainable business performance or employee engagement, or an agile corporate culture. And if you are anywhere below the executive level, you find that something just doesn’t feel right about the whole thing. And worse yet, ask any citizen or person in business what’s wrong with companies and countries today and you tend to hear the same thing: “lack of leadership”.
If it sounds like I am knocking “leadership”, I’m not. I have studied leaders and leadership my whole business life. I have been in the role of leader several times, often as CEO or founder.
What I would like you to think about is another point of view. Leadership as the “back up band”. When I went to rock concerts in college in the 60’s the back up band came on first to get the audience warmed up and engaged for the headline acts to follow. Some did such a great job that the headline acts had an easy gig. Others did so poorly that the big name acts had to struggle to win back the crowd. In every case it came down to how well the back up band engaged with the audience, not how perfectly they played.
Great leadership is more about supporting, engaging, coaching and setting the right environment than having all the answers or the perfect vision or strategy. By the way, news flash, in this day and age of rapid change and constant disruption of traditional business models, there is no such thing as a “perfect” strategy. Strategy (what we do to win customers, beat competitors and create sustainability) today must be more agile than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers (really telling my age now) and able to revise plans and initiate new solutions quickly. Unless the entire organisation, right down to the night watchman, is engaged and unless information flows quickly up, down and across the organisation, adaptive responses and innovative change gets mired in protocol, meetings, hierarchies, and more meetings.
Leaders in their role as the “back up band” support the real superstars, those employees close to the real work, who listen to the customer, who spot trends and changing patterns, who develop new ways of streamlining processes, reducing waste, speeding up the supply chain. All great innovations and advances tend to come from those nearer the customer or closest to the real work processes. Leadership is there to support them through open listening, suggestions, investments, coaching. Super star leaders probe and second guess, effective “behind the scenes” leaders coach, suggest, encourage.
In an organisation of “superstar” leadership, employees say “they are great”! In an organisation with leaders as the back-up band, employees say “we are great”!
It just feels better that way. And it works better as well.
See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.
John also writes thriller novels: novels.johnrchildress.com