The 5 biggest problems with the leadership Industry

When I first sat down to write this article, I read through several of the fantastic leadership topics covered by previous authors. Whilst flattering to be asked to contribute, my inner critic was hard at work questioning how I planned to add value. As a leadership coach, there are several challenges that I could have referred to, referenced, and written about. However, I would like to focus on some of the problems that I think plague the industry, as a whole. Despite having a dislike for articles with numbers in the titles like the one I am using, I will have to accept the irony.

The 5 biggest problems with the leadership Industry as I see them:

  1. People claim to have all the answers
  2. There is a tendency to oversimplify
  3. Everyone wants a quick fix
  4. People try to apply a one-size fits all approach
  5. It’s about following the latest trend

We have been talking about and discussing leadership almost since the dawn of time. In around 300BC the Chanakya Sutras were written discussing the challenges of balancing looking after people whilst adapting to the transforming world around us.

Fast forward to the present day and more than 6000 new business books are published every year. That’s a lot of books and a lot of ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’ claiming to have the answer to all our organizational and leadership problems. On one hand, we could see this as a positive, in that people are sharing their experiences and shedding light to provide solutions to our struggles. On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves, is any of this new information making a difference or are we still dealing with the same fundamental issues we were dealing with 2000 years ago?

  1. People claim to have all the answers.

Many of the books that I have read recently, there is a seemingly unwavering conviction that this particular author has the answers we have been looking for and that her/ his book is what we need to become better leaders. What I find quite galling is the fact that some can be dismissive of what has come before and stake their claim on the overdue and highly sought-after solutions.

2. There is a tendency to oversimplify.

Maybe this is, in part, due to the fact that our attention spans have been reduced to a mere 8 seconds*(equal to that of a goldfish) but I feel there is a propensity to oversimplify information. What I believe to be complex discussions are reduced to ‘5 easy steps’ or catchy acronyms – the shorter and catchier, the better. Don’t get me wrong, I like a framework and structure that helps thinking, provides guidance, support and clarity. The qualm I have is around the overstated simplicity. All you need to do is follow these short steps and all your problems will be solved. There is no context applied, no appreciation of the plethora of other factors or variables that may be present in any given situation. Clearly the author has no insight into your specific issue, but this is rarely mentioned, and I don’t think that any issue can be resolved just by following simple guidelines outlined in the multitude of books published each year.

3. Everyone wants a quick fix

Perhaps this ties to/ is part of the previous point as well? Technology has certainly made life more convenient in a number of ways – quick food delivery, ride sharing, communication, access to information etc. However, it has also completely disrupted our expectations. We expect things to happen faster, simpler, easier, and when we want them to. When things don’t happen that way, we are quick to anger, get frustrated and seek alternatives. We don’t want to eat a well-balanced diet and exercise to lose weight; we just want a pill that we take daily. We don’t want to work on a relationship that raises challenges; we just swipe left and we are onto the next. To be fair, those might be extreme and unfair generalisations, but I have seen the patterns of behaviour play out in a number of different social scenarios. Most leadership challenges revolve around managing people, more specifically, the emotions of people. As humans, we are complex and nuanced – one day we are happy, engaged, open and communicative; the next we may be distant, unresponsive, and obstructive. There is no quick fix to understanding people and we need to stop claiming there is and expecting there to be one.

4. People try to apply a one-size fits all approach

It’s great to have lots of information, but information does not necessarily equate to knowledge, merely having knowledge does not equate to being able to solve problems.

Though many books are based on rigorous research, often over decades, new releases with clever marketing are light on analysis, opting instead for examples taken from a singular organisation. The author may use this example to highlight a certain approach or a ‘new’ technology. The problem here is that it is often just anecdotal and very specific to that particular company.  I have avoided mentioning certain books as I don’t feel it’s fair to prejudice authors based on my subjective opinion, however, for this point, I will mention one in particular – I remember reading one of Jack Welch’s (revered for his leadership abilities in the 80s – 00s) books on how he led at GE and half-way through thinking that this guy is just an asshole. Clearly that model would not work today, nor did it really work then, but many people who run companies may think the style he used at GE is one to emulate.

5.It’s about following the latest trend

It’s all about following the latest trend as opposed to thinking about what matters, what’s important, appropriate and necessary. I refer back to the point I raised earlier about attention spans having been reduced to 8 seconds. This is not true!** It is, however, a great example of sensationalism as well as an attempt to exploit a trend/ capitalise on problems that don’t actually exist. We possibly live in a more distracted world, with more opportunities for distraction that may makes achieving focus harder, however this was the fear with the invention of the radio, the television and every new piece of technology since the industrial revolution. This gave rise to trends on focus and time management, which of course are important, but they always have been. We need to avoid the temptation to get drawn into the latest fad and take into account the deeper longstanding, poorly addressed or often unaddressed issues like autonomy, meaning, belonging, inclusion, support and personal development.

Have you been to any webinars recently? How is it that in a 1-hour webinar, people can fill that time talking, without actually saying anything of any value. I am always confused and stunned by this. I don’t know which point this falls under – perhaps all of them. We have to be wary of gurus claiming to have all the answers, we have to avoid the temptation to only look for the path of least resistance, we have to embrace nuances and differences, we have to look at the core fundamentals that still hold true after 1000s of years; because really as humans, we haven’t evolved as much as we would like to think we have.

As a leadership coach, my main answer to most of the questions that I get is, ‘It depends’. I really think that any answer depends on the situation. There is no cookie-cutter approach. Each person, situation and circumstance have a huge number of variables and we should not try to apply a standardised approach. Of course, there can be parallels, or learnings that we can consider and seek to apply, but let’s start with the individual and their specific context and go from there.

Leadership is an ever-morphing field. I do believe there are some core tenets that have not changed.

  • Have conversations with your people
  • Be empathetic and compassionate
  • Ask open questions
  • Listen to your people
  • Ask for feedback
  • Create psychological safety

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