Conventional Leadership Wisdom is Wrong – and Why We Need to Change

Illustration by Dreamstime.

Last Friday, I was interviewed as part of the Executive Conversation Series at the Human Capital Institute where I serve as a member of the Expert Advisory Panel on Talent Management. We spent an amazing hour discussing the The Look of Leadership 3.0

I started my conversation with the analogy about the styles of leadership over the years: Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. If we were able to do a comparative graph, the styles of leadership of each of these legendary individuals and leaders the arc would be off the chart.

Each one is a masterful leader in his own right. Could Henry Ford or Jack Welch manage a workforce today with the same level of success. I personally think not. The evolution of modern leadership requires a different style from what may have been successful years ago.

The workforce has evolved into a multi-generational hodgepodge of unique individuals with Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” possibly still intact, but the level of connectivity between leader and employee is now out of balance. The recession, and the fallout from it, has changed the landscape.

Our discussion on Friday centered on how the organization can prepare leaders for this new dynamic. Another major point of discussion was this: how can leaders connect with a disengaged workforce?

Inspiring people make you a leader

John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

That simple sentence captures the essence of being a leader. Now contrast that with a search on Amazon for books about “Leadership Development.” A query returned over 4500 titles. That is an insurmountable number, with more being written every day. Granted, leadership is a topic that can be studied forever, but 4500 titles?

One of the reports that I quoted throughout my presentation was a recent study called “What Predicts Executive Success?” This study was done by Green Peak Partners in collaboration with the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. This study was a deep analysis of the styles, backgrounds, and track records of senior executives. It’s described by Green Peak as a study that shows, “that conventional wisdom is wrong — and that leaders who possess strong soft skills perform better at driving hard results.”

The key takeaways from this study were that:

  • Soft skills will be the key leadership driver;
  • Interpersonal strength will be a key competency;
  • Being self-aware is an important make up of the future leader.

Key issues from the survey

More specifically, the research found that:

Article Continues Below
  • Bully” traits that are often seen as part of a business-building culture were typically signs of incompetence and lack of strategic intellect. Such weaknesses as being “arrogant,” “too direct,” or “impatient and stubborn” correlated with low ratings for delivering financial results, business/technical acumen, strategic intellect, and, not surprisingly, managing talent, inspiring followership, and being a team player.
  • Poor interpersonal skills lead to under-performance in most executive functions. Executives whose interpersonal skill scores were low also scored badly on every single performance dimension.
  • Leadership searches give short shrift to “self-awareness,” which should actually be a top criterion. Interestingly, a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success. This is not altogether surprising as executives who are aware of their weaknesses are often better able to hire subordinates who perform well in categories in which the leader lacks acumen. These leaders are also more able to entertain the idea that someone on their team may have an idea that is even better than their own.
  • Experience at many different companies is not a positive sign. The more organizations an executive worked with early in his or her career, the lower the people management rating. Executives who change jobs frequently are often trying to outrun a problem, and that problem often has to do with how they “fit” in the workplace. Job hoppers also lack perspective on the outcome of their leadership decisions, as they typically leave before the changes take effect.

As we progressed through the Q&A segment at the Executive Conversation Series, one of the threads that kept coming through was this: what can the organization do to lessen the impact of the impending turnover, and what can the organization do to prepare the next generation of leaders?

You need to get started on this NOW!

The questions came through in a way that makes you feel that this impending disaster was going to encroach upon us at any given moment. This recession, according to a recent report, is “officially over.” Try telling that to some of the folks who are unemployed; they will give you a better assessment.

Regardless of where your organization feels that they are in this cycle, the time to start is NOW. One of my main suggestions to the group was to create an employee council made up of a variety of employee levels. What better way to get engagement back on track than to ask the folks who you want to engage?Talk to them to get a sense of what it takes to get them back on track.

As to developing the new leader, look at how they are being chosen; are the requirements in sync with the new workforce?  Review your leadership competencies, and, look at the challenges within your industry.

There is still time. The key is to get it started NOW. Leadership development, like so many other facets of human capital improvement, must all be reviewed because all the dynamics have changed. What worked pre-recession will not automatically work going forward.

My mother had a favorite saying “ The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Begin the process now, sooner rather than later.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


2 Comments on “Conventional Leadership Wisdom is Wrong – and Why We Need to Change

  1. Ron, I agree that the best way to drive engagement is to actually (and proactively) engage people. Your recommendation for an employee council is great. I’d also suggest that leaders find other ways to solicit input and feedback from their employees in between council meetings. This would make it easier to capture ideas when they’re top of mind, help leaders quickly identify blind spots and bright spots, and make engagement an ongoing thing.

    Being able to maintain this type of ongoing conversation is the sort of soft skill effective leaders should possess. And it’s a great way to engage and develop future leadership: simply being asked for one’s opinion can be a real motivator. There’s a great McKinsey study that found recognition to be a more powerful motivator than money: Praise ranked most effective, but even “attention from leaders” ranked higher than cash bonuses.

  2. Excellent insight, Ron, and thank you for sharing that piece of research from GreenPeak Partners. To me, it’s closely linked with proof that Jack Welch’s “shareholder value” approach to running a company is bunk (which Welch himself has said was misunderstood at the time and doesn’t work anyway). It’s the employees that drive company value any way you look at it. Happier, more engaged employees deliver better customer service, better product innovation ideas, better quality. Full stop.

    In fact, Gallup recently found the same in their research ( that found causation (not just correlation) between engagement and financial success — engaged employees create financial success, not the other way around.

    A key quote from that research: “What we’re able to do in this study is look not just at engagement and financial performance but also look at two mediating variables: employee turnover and customer perceptions. We’re able to look at the path from employee engagement to those two outcomes that then lead to financial performance.”

    Total validation of our own customer, Symantec, who has said: “We think that overall employee loyalty is driving customer loyalty, which drives revenue. And that definitely makes recognition a business proposition that we can share at the top line level.”

    I’ll be blogging myself on this topic in the next couple weeks. Thank you for helping to keep it top of mind.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *