Leadership styles are still all too often outdatedOne of the exercises I use most often in my leadership workshops is to split the group into three and ask them to consider what skills and qualities are required of them as leaders, and how this is different to five years ago.  They have to agree what they think are the top three, and then convince the other two groups that their list is right.

As an exercise it serves several purposes:

  • gets them thinking about leadership and how expectations of leaders is evolving
  • provides them with a checklist of leadership skills and qualities against which they can self assess
  • gives us a chance to look at how they go about influencing each other
  • generates individual feedback on their contributions to the discussion (and opens up, for instance, a debate about Introverts and how best to handle Extraverts)


There is of course no single correct answer to the question.  The point is that the demands of leaders is changing, and leaders need to adapt to this.  What worked five years ago is not going to work as well now, and leaders may need to hit the “refresh” button.  From what I observe and the stories people tell me, not all leaders are successfully doing this, and it can lead to malfunctioning relationships, loss of productivity and what I call loss of “career mojo” for the people they lead.

What’s so different, then?  Here’s my take on it.

One of the most significant changes is the erosion of trust in society as a whole and in the workplace in particular.  The Edelman Trust barometer looks at responses from over 30,000 people worldwide. The 2017 report concludes that trust in business, government, media and NGO’s is “in crisis.” It concludes:

“With the fall of trust, the majority of respondents now lack full belief that the overall system is working for them. In this climate, people’s societal and economic concerns, including globalization, the pace of innovation and eroding social values, turn into fears, spurring the rise of populist actions now playing out in several Western-style democracies.”

At work, CEO credibility is at an all time low, with only 37% of people worldwide saying CEO’s are very or extremely credible. This is supported by a survey carried out by Maritz that concluded only 11% of employees strongly agree that their managers are consistent between their words and their actions.

If people don’t trust each other their behaviour becomes defensive and self interested.  They find collaboration uncomfortable, will be less open and honest with their feedback, and may resort to toxic behaviours such as games playing and arse covering.  “As trust goes down, speed goes down and costs go up”, as Stephen M R Covey suggests in his book “The Speed of Trust”.

Leadership update #1:  invest more time in building trust in your team.  This will involve getting to know them as people, taking a genuine interest in their well being, being as open as you can with information, being consistent and reliable.  In a world in which there is usually far too much to do and not enough time to do it, making this a priority is a challenge.  No one said this was going to be easy.

Next up I would say is the requirement to provide more meaning for people.  I come across all too many individuals who have little sense of where they fit in, or what the point of their work is.  I think this is partly because at the most senior level in organisations there is confusion about the way forward.  In the UK, Brexit is of course a major factor here, and in the US there is equally uncertainty caused by a President who at best is unpredictable and inconsistent.  Added to that is uncertainty about how to respond to the advances of AI and other technologies, what the European Union will mean in a few years, border controls, nuclear threats…….anyone who claims to have a clear strategy at this moment in our journey is luckier than most, let’s put it that way.

What’s expected of business leaders in this situation?  I’d say it is help the team to be clear about what’s important, and to work with them to provide a common and agreed sense of purpose.  This involves discussion (note:  not declaration) of team values, what we can deliver when we are at our best, and what drives us and unlocks our energy.  If this can be directed towards a team “Why” (Simon Sinek explains this concept superbly in his TED talk), you will have something you can all work towards which will give you a focus whilst all around you is chaos and confusion.

(Note:  if you want to facilitate you own team workshop to find your team “Why”, Sinek’s recent book “Find your Why” is an excellent facilitator guide to enable you to do that.)

Once you have agreed your team Purpose or “Why”, you can encourage team members to set objectives for the year which move towards achieving it.  If they propose these, you may unlock energy and passion at individual level which might have been wasted before.  Your role becomes a facilitator in all of this, not a director.  A crucial change of style and attitude is required for this, and it may not come easily if your leadership preference (as I see all too often), is to direct.

Ken Blanchard put out an excellent post whilst I was writing this, in which he describes “servant leadership” and what it means.  The principles behind servant leadership align very well with what I am suggesting here.

Leadership update #2:  Instead of telling people what their objectives are,  facilitate your team in working out its “Why” and use this as the basis for setting direction for the year.  Agree individual objectives which support this and keep those as the main focus throughout the year.

I spoke last week with a team leader who has adopted this approach, and the energy which it had released in him was palpable, because he was now surrounded by so much more energy from the team.  He has fundamentally rethought his role, and as a result is no longer getting down in the weeds looking for something useful to do, but guiding and supporting his team in finding their own answers.  Talking to him was like receiving a shot of adrenaline.  Talk about recovering your career mojo!

My final point is closely linked to this change of style.  It is the idea of making coaching your team the number one priority.   Google researched this question extensively in 2013 in what they called Project Oxygen. From thousands of internal interviews with Engineering Managers and their teams they discovered that the number one thing people are looking for in their manager was him or her being a good coach.

There are two challenges in making coaching a priority.  The first is practical:  coaching takes time, and we know how scarce that is . The second issue is that bad coaching is worse than no coaching, and in my experience not enough people know what good coaching looks like.  When we work on coaching on my leadership development workshops the default style I see people using is Directing:  providing answers to the “problems” that their coachees are trying to solve.  This disempowers the individual and they remain reliant on the coach for further direction and guidance.

When we ask why people prefer to use the Directive style, the answer is usually that they think this is what coachees expect of them (they could not be more wrong), and also because it saves time and is more “efficient”.  Wrong again.

Leadership update #3:  Make coaching a priority. Use it instead of a Directing style whenever you can (ie ask more questions, ask people for their suggestions, listen more and if in doubt shut up), and operate on the assumption that most people have their own answers if  you can create the space for them to unlock them.

If you want to think further about this subject, I recommend Nancy Kline’s book “Time to Think”.  She goes into great detail into how to create what she calls a “thinking environment” when you run meetings or coach others.  I was particularly struck by her ideas on how to unlock the contribution of introverts.

I go into this topic in more detail in my book “My Job Isn’t Working!”, due for publication on 10th July.  The book aims to provide practical help for people who are in the “squeezed middle” at work, and who may be feeling stuck.  If you would like to receive preview material and to join my “launch team” so we can spread the word and help as many people as possible, there’s a sign up form to my mailing list at the bottom of the contents page.

Cartoon:  Jerry King, cartoonstock