Time for HR to redefine leadership development

This week two articles in The Economist warn leaders against hubris, which tempts them to play to their strengths and discourages from admitting mistakes. More so, one of the pieces argues, hubris clouds leaders’ judgment, and they stop noticing their mistakes before they know it. The CIPD’s own survey has shown that eight out of ten managers say they think their staff are satisfied or very satisfied with them as a manager whereas just 58% of employees report this is the case. So why does common sense seem to escape even the best in their skill?


For too long senior executives have been learning leadership lessons from heroic figures primarily focused on achievement. Indeed, charisma and self-confidence galvanize revolutions, but unlike the barricades, organisations must have the time and the place for cool-headedness and humility. To make decisions that satisfy multiple stakeholders – including those inside the company – it is in the interest of leaders to listen to the voice of the employees. Enough leadership development programmes focus on increasing participants’ self-awareness through regular feedback, yet it seems that few practicing leaders are prepared to hold the mirror up to their style.


However, even employee empowerment (although yet to be embraced by many) paradoxically relies on the top-down leadership to permit and facilitate bottom-up communication. On the other hand, a true shift to a greater role of employees to some extent depends on prior disempowerment of the formal leaders, evident from the calls for lower executive pay and the rise of social media at work. For organisations this means new structures that provide greater responsibility – and freedom – for individual employees. The idea is not new: more than a year ago Gary Hamel wrote about self-managing organisations, where employees strike informal contracts with each other and determine each other’s levels of compensation.


A common issue with the current assumptions about effective leadership is that they often conflate one’s ability to motivate others with one’s formal authority – being someone’s boss, for example. Leadership development then becomes a preparation for stepping into a managerial role. At the same time, positional power is just one of the eleven (known) ways of influencing people, alongside mutual commitments and appealing to intrinsic motivation. Although an imminent collapse of organisational hierarchy is unlikely, the HR function must start looking for leadership capability within the reserves of internal social networks and informal authority.

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