The Wrong End of the Telescope?

When the dust settles on the recent meltdown of the global financial markets much of the fault will be attributed to poor leadership – especially at the top of large financial institutions where leaders were unable to stem personal and corporate greed. In addition the failure of leadership also lies with regulatory bodies unwilling to impose the requisite oversight and accountability required for the stewardship of billions of dollars of other people’s money.

Further evidence for the failure of leadership lies in the fact that during the past several decades of economic prosperity there has been a steady and dramatic decline in employee engagement coupled with a growing distrust of leadership, both corporate and political. And when people lack faith in their leaders, everyone suffers.

But how can this be?  Leadership training and MBA degrees are more popular than ever. Executive leadership courses at major business schools are oversubscribed. Books on leadership dominate the list of non-fiction best sellers, many having been translated into dozens of languages.  Are leaders not reading them, or are they not effective in their advice or content?

And leadership training courses abound, whether they are workshop based, offered over the Internet in digital form, or are part of the growing number of offerings by Human Resource departments inside corporations.  And the hallways of modern organizations are clogged with executive coaches whose job is to improve leadership at all levels of the organization.

Yet this growing activity is not producing the required results.  Leadership is failing business and the world.  What’s going on?

The answer lies, I believe, in the fact that we have been looking at leadership from the wrong end of the telescope.  The vast majority of business books and academic studies in the field of leadership have focused on behaviour – behaviour styles, communication styles, leadership behaviours, dealing with difficult people, team dynamics, advice from the “masters”, and a plethora of other behaviour-based approaches.  Of course poor or inappropriate behaviour in our leaders creates both business and people problems, but is it just the leadership behaviours that need to change?

Teambuilding and Leadership:

For the past 30 years senior executive team-building has been enormously popular.  After a senior team workshop the improvement in alignment, trust, openness, interpersonal communications and personal change is often spectacular.  And the resulting display of renewed optimism, openness and trust among the senior team usually brings significant improvements in the overall ability to get things done across.  This positive display holds the promise of a more healthy corporate culture.

However, over varying periods of time, often measured in months or one or two quarters at the most, the “glow” and healthy attitudes tend to fade, old non-productive behaviour patterns re-emerge and a creeping cynicism sets in.   And once a team-building or culture change program has failed, it’s nearly impossible to try it again – people just aren’t up for another short-term spike followed by disappointment.

In those rare exceptions where a strong and committed CEO has taken the challenge of behavioural change to heart and led “from the front” while holding those on the senior team personally accountable, the change in behavior has been significantly longer lasting.

The problem is consultants and business academics have used these “exceptional” leaders as justification for the belief that strong leadership behaviors are the only solution to overall business improvement, thus issuing in the revered “cult” of leadership so popular today.  Mega conferences with the “world’s best leaders” (including orchestra conductors) are held regularly around the globe, drawing in thousands of participants to hear the wisdom from the masters and spawning hundreds of DVDs and on-line videos.  They are popular, but do things really change?  Does hearing a good speaker change the way a business is run? Does reading a diet book bring significant weight loss?

After talking with hundreds of senior executives in leadership positions I find them weary of behavioural approaches to business improvement – everywhere they turn the books, articles, editorials, blogs, training courses are all pushing the same thing – leadership is failing and leaders need to change their behaviour!

Leadership Work Processes:

Is it all a behaviour problem? Is there something else we’ve been missing in our efforts toimprove organizational and leadership performance? Have we been looking through the wrong end of the telescope?

My growing dissatisfaction with the ephemeral nature of behavioural approaches has recently led me on a quest of a different sort – away from business psychology, coaching and leadership training and towards the more tangible, seemingly mundane, less flashy factors associated with leadership and business performance – I call them leadership work processes.

It is my observation that the strongest factors influencing culture, behaviour and business performance are the processes that govern work at the top of organizations.  A sampling of such leadership work processes includes senior staff meetings, the annual budgeting cycle, the strategic planning process, monthly and quarterly operations reviews, administrative and human resource procedures, capital allocation processes, annual performance reviews and a host of other business processes driven by the senior team.  Processes that have a dramatic impact on all corners of the organization.

What has been surprising to me is that in the majority of companies these processes are not the well designed, standardized, replicable, efficient processes that drive consistent business results and demand consistent behaviors to operate and maintain, but a collection of very loose, undefined and in most cases undocumented activities.  There is little process excellence at the top!

Could it be that a better way to improve leadership and organizations is to improve the leadership processes?

 Fix the processes, not the people.   – W. Edwards Deming

I for one believe it’s time to rethink leadership.

Written and Posted by: John R. Childress

Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s blog,  Business Books Website

On Amazon: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

John also writes thriller novels!

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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1 Response to The Wrong End of the Telescope?

  1. beldenmenkus says:

    John, This is so on the money! Just what I’d expect from you: insightful, useful, and timely. Would love to carry on the conversation in more depth. Belden


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