As I travel the world and talk to leaders at organizations of all sizes and types, there is one question that has defied all my efforts to find an easy, clear answer:
With all the time, effort and money organizations spend to improve their leaders’ performance of, why haven’t we made more progress?
It’s not that I haven’t attempted to answer that question.
My first attempt was to look at the issue of leadership accountability. In other words, were organizations satisfied in the way their leaders were stepping up? The results of a global survey revealed a leadership accountability gap.
We then explored the gap even further with additional research that found what exactly makes leaders unaccountable and mediocre. We identified several characteristics of truly mediocre leaders, including a willingness to blame others, chronic selfishness, ineptitude, a lack of initiative and a general capacity for mean and uncivil behavior.
But there was more going on. There had to be a missing ingredient. But which one?
It turned out to be something I suspected all along—leadership culture.
If the leadership culture of an organization isn’t strong across a company, it won’t matter how strong leaders are at an individual level. If the culture does not support and encourage leaders to lead effectively, then everyone suffers. And as hard as it is to believe, far too many organizations send their leaders to development programs to learn skills and behaviors that are simply not supported by the broader organizational culture.
To better understand leadership culture, we launched a global study, reaching out to leaders from the director/middle manager level up to the C-Suite. In the end, we received a remarkable 2,200 responses from dozens of countries across four continents.
First, the good news: An overwhelming majority (96 percent) felt that having a strong leadership culture was either very or critically important to the success of their organizations. This is significant because it means that most companies understand that culture is the key to better leadership performance.
Only 33 percent of respondents, however, were very or extremely confident that their leadership culture was sufficient to encourage and support top-notch, day-to-day leadership performance.
The gap between acknowledging the importance of culture and admitting the shortcomings in culture is an important first step to addressing this problem. As the saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one. Make no mistake, we have a problem here—one that must be addressed before leadership development investments can begin to improve overall performance.
I was still interested in diving a bit deeper into this issue, so I decided to ask questions that focused on a series of clear, unambiguous qualities that most organizations expect their leaders to possess. These include things like resilience, strategic thinking, willingness to collaborate and the ability to support and motivate people. In my experience, these 10 qualities are the cornerstones of good leadership. They also need to be the cornerstones of good leadership culture.
Our findings were a bit stunning in their mediocrity. On average, most respondents felt their leaders were just “okay” at most of the 10 characteristics, which is, in and of itself, a big concern in today’s hyper-competitive business environment.
|Behavior||Average rating (0-5)|
|Leaders demonstrate resilience and resolve in the face of adversity.||3.73|
|Leaders are clear on the strategic direction of the organization.||3.67|
|Leaders celebrate success and key milestones.||3.63|
|Leaders create excitement about the future.||3.39|
|Leaders support one another; they have each other's back.||3.33|
|Leaders share a common aspiration to be great leaders.||3.31|
|Leaders keep internal politics and personal agendas to a minimum.||3.17|
|Leaders lead with a united front with a "one-company" mindset.||3.11|
|Leaders break down silos and collaborate effectively.||3.06|
|Leaders hold each other accountable by calling out unproductive leadership behavior.||2.78|
So, we have reached a point where we can say that leadership culture is important, few organizations are doing well at building an effective leadership culture and, as a result, leaders are turning in a mediocre performance. Before anyone becomes despondent, there are solutions, but they will require organizations to take stock of their leadership culture to identify areas of improvement.
Here is a quick questionnaire that will help you determine whether your leadership culture needs a tune up:
- Do your leaders rely heavily on the “command and control” style of leadership, where there is little discussion or input into major decisions?
- Do your leaders find it difficult to collaborate with each other, to the point that they actively avoid all efforts to consult and learn from each other?
- Are there entrenched silos within your organization that mean leaders simply do not know what their peers are doing in other areas of the same company?
- Do your leaders tend to work at cross-purposes and resist any suggestion that they support each other?
- Is there a lack of clarity among leaders around the company’s overall business strategy?
- Is there a high rate of turnover among senior leaders?
- Do your leaders hoard information and spread rumors to advance their own careers?
- Are your leaders complacent, and do they lack motivation?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the eight questions above, you have some work to do on your overall leadership culture. If you answered ‘yes’ to three or more questions, then you have a full-blown leadership culture crisis on your hands.
For those who may find themselves edging towards “full-blown crisis,” there is hope. The principles laid out in my book, The Leadership Contract, do serve as an antidote to a crisis of leadership culture. Both for individuals, and for the broader organization.
Leadership development will continue to be an important part of an overall talent management strategy. Individual leaders need individual attention to help them develop the muscle memory around what a good leader looks like and sounds like, and how they conduct themselves on a day-to-day basis.
But all that work improving an individual’s leadership skills and behaviors will be lost if they return to an organization that is not on the same page. Or worse, where senior leaders do not subscribe to the same high ideals of good leadership. You must get your leadership culture right to make the most of your leadership development investments.
Culture is so important—it must come before skill and behavior development. Any attempt to separate the two will only end in disaster.