New research suggests that business leaders in every part of the globe are under-performing when it comes to the skills and capacities they will need in the 21st Century.
Gurnek Baines and his team at YSC undertook a detailed analysis of 1,500 business executives across the world and ranked their performance against twenty desirable leadership traits. The work highlighted some intriguing regional differences. The Middle East had a higher proportion of commercially-minded executives than America. And Latin American business leaders were by far the most ambitious.
But what really stood out was how consistent were the strengths and weaknesses across the globe. Business leaders everywhere are ambitious, action-oriented, analytical and commercially-minded. They perform less well on being strategic, inclusive and knowledgeable.
But where global executives really fail is in the area of human interaction. The study found that not a single region could boast that over 10% of their business leaders formed bonds well. The same was true of being self-aware. On authenticity, only Europe secured just over 20%.
In short, businesses across the world are being led by dynamic, analytical and driven people who find it hard to create basic human connections. As Gurnek Baines himself states the data shows that over 40% of senior executives display achievement, drive and ambition but only a quarter display empathy, self-awareness and insight.
Some may not find this troubling. Aren’t our leaders supposed to be the most driven individuals? Surely empathy and self-awareness is for priests and counsellors not those trying to turn a profit in the tough world of the global market.
The problem with this perspective is that this model of the heroic, ambitious, self-centred leader is increasingly irrelevant in the changing world of the 21st century.
As a growing number of thinkers are recognising, successful organisations today are not those shaped by the ambition and drive of an elite of leaders but those that unleash the creative potential of all of their employees, partners and customers. We are in an ‘Everyone a Changemaker’ era where the world’s population increasingly expects to be respected, creative participants in an enterprise not passive worker ants waiting for their orders. Indeed, the world is now so complex and fluid that no elite of leaders can hope to keep up with the pace of change anyway. The best recognise they have no choice but to rely on the insights and ideas of the multitude.
As Frederic Laloux has argued in such a world the role of senior executives is not to lead but to facilitate and support the autonomous decision-making of their colleagues. Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimanns have shown that leaders need to see their organisations as platforms for the creative endeavour of many others not their own ambition or vision. Peter Henge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania define their idea of system leadership by quoting Lao Tzu who said: the great leader is he of whom the people say “we did it ourselves”.
Bill Drayton of Ashoka sums it all up by saying that in such a world everyone needs to master the skills that allow them to appreciate the perspective of others and understand deeply how their own decisions can either enable or block the goals of those with whom they connect. He calls this mastering empathy. Leaders are no more immune from such imperatives than anyone else; in fact, they may be in even more need of adopting empathy and self-awareness given the greater formal power they possess.
So Baines’s findings should worry us. They suggest a growing disjuncture between the type of leaders we have and the type of leaders we actually need. In short, in this ‘everyone a changemaker’ world, people are asking to be understood and empowered not pigeon-holed and directed by their bosses and those bosses need to adapt – rapidly.