March 13, 2013
Why is Leadership Important Now?

The Center for Leadership Council (CLC) is an independent institution that provides leadership-related intelligence to its member organizations. Primarily, the CLC engages in “fact-based case study research” on a global scale in an effort to establish what most interested parties would agree is the cutting edge of leadership particulars. Some of these “particulars” truly get your attention. For example:

“Only 18% of global leaders today are achieving both their short-term performance objectives and effectively building the foundation for long-term growth.”

Collectively, when we reviewed that statement for the first time, we said something like, “Are you kidding?” Across industries and around the world, less than one leader in five is figuring out a way to achieve their goals and strengthen their foundation? Wow!

Now, as we all know, it is far easier to read a statistic or two and exclaim, “Wow!” than it is to replace one of the leaders under review and turn those statistics around. The fact of the matter is that effectively influencing people in this day and age is really, really difficult. And, with all due respect to those that have blazed the trail, there is simply no comparing the dynamics of leadership today with the dynamics of leadership in times gone by.

In an effort to provide glaring historical contrast, consider the objectives and corresponding variables faced by the following two executive-level leaders:

  • Julius Caesar: (He was one of the greatest military powers, a brilliant politician and one of the ancient world’s strongest leaders. His reign led to the rise of the Roman Empire.)
    • Your mission? World domination
    • The diversity of your workforce? Zero (young male Roman citizen-soldiers speaking one language)
    • Means of communication between units? One (human messenger)
    • Time it takes for messenger communication to travel from Rome to Alexandria? Two hours by chariot, then six days by sea
    • Change? Tell a general or two what you have in mind and probably never think (or hear) about it again
  • Marissa Mayer: (President and CEO of Yahoo. She is the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company.)
    • Your mission? Facilitate delivery of Yahoo’s comprehensive branded network of services to over 345 million individuals worldwide each month
    • Diversity of your workforce? Fifteen thousand men and women spanning five generations working in 47 different offices in 25 countries
    • Means of communication between work units? You name it; face-to-face meetings, webcasts, teleconferences, cell phone, email, instant messages, texts and tweets
    • Time it takes for an IM to travel from one end of the world to the other? An instant
    • Change? Tell key staff what you want and alert the public relations department for an onslaught of media-driven second-guessing that will drive the news cycle for 10-15 days (at a minimum)

Admittedly, comparing historical eras is problematic for all kinds of reasons. And, regardless of your personal opinion on her decision to mandate that Yahoo employees physically come into work every day, how many people do you think truly have what it takes to stand and face the music the way Ms. Mayer has so far? Beyond that, let’s just say you are sick and tired at this point of hearing about Marissa Mayer (after all, no matter how all this turns out, she’s not going to have to worry about the things most of us have to worry about every day anyway, right)? So, enough about her.

Conversely, let’s do this. Let’s leave the realm of the global leader. Mentally work your way down the chain of command at Yahoo for a minute. Think about the people we can identify with, but in all likelihood we’ll never hear about, let alone meet. One question: What do you think it’s been like to be a director, manager, or supervisor at Yahoo the last few weeks (i.e., occupy the proverbial Yahoo trenches and be responsible for actually implementing this change)? Reflect upon the challenges these leaders undoubtedly face on three levels:

  • Short-term productivity: In spite of all the hoopla, it is doubtful that performance targets have been reduced in any way, shape or form
  • Morale: Pajamas and a 14-step commute to a home office have now been replaced by casual business attire and rush-hour traffic (the potential for “unhappy campers” is predictably high)
  • Retention: Consider the possibility that several Yahoo employee resumes are currently working their way through cyberspace

So why is leadership important? With bias duly noted, we would suggest that without it, Yahoo doesn’t have a prayer (and neither does any other organization that finds itself tasked with the responsibility of implementing a bold and largely unpopular change). In the absence of leadership at the team, department and divisional levels (i.e., “the trenches”) there are predictable consequences to the challenges under consideration:

  1. Turnover will increase: Strong talent will opt to work someplace else without giving the new course of action a fighting chance
  2. Engagement will decrease: Employees that aren’t as marketable realistically can’t quit and leave,”, so conversely, they will opt to “quit and stay”
  3. Productivity will decline: When the energy of any system is focused on who is leaving and everything that is wrong, it stands to reason that output will suffer

Can leaders really turn these kinds of situations around? You know on the basis of your own experience that they can, and that they do! To that point, results from a recent survey conducted by the Learning and Development Roundtable documented that employees reporting to managers that were deemed to be “effective leaders” were 25% more productive, 52% more engaged and 40% less likely to take a job with another company than employees reporting to managers deemed to be “ineffective leaders.” And, we’re betting that you didn’t need that study (or any one of 1000 others) to convince you that, in a weird way, leaders thrive on the chaos and the challenges that accompany significant change.

There are few guarantees in life, but we feel confident predicting that your future will resemble the environment faced by Marissa Mayer far more than any other high-profile leader you might choose to pluck out of history. And, while nobody will ever be satisfied with an 18% success rate delivering on short-term goals and preparing for long-term stability, maybe those metrics speak volumes on just how difficult effective leadership has become. Leaders must be agents of change who deliver results, engage employees and retain key talent.

We are The Center for Leadership Studies, and We Build Leaders!

Find more on leadership and change in “Leadership Blueprint” written by Dr. Paul Hersey with Diana Newton.

Application Challenge:Focus on your role as a leader in an important change initiative (i.e., one that is currently underway or one that is identified for the future) then answer the following questions:

  1. How will the change impact the ability and/or willingness of those reporting to you to fulfill their roles and deliver desired results?
    1. “Change” by definition suggests people need to learn new things or adopt new practices. Quite often those most affected by change are those most comfortable with the existing “status quo”
  2. How will the change and its corresponding impact on those reporting to you alter your leadership style?
    1. Anticipate how you will need to shift your approach in order to provide the direction and support people are going to need.

Footnote: 1Hersey P, Newton, D.  Leadership Blueprint: Why We Better Lead and Lead Better. 1st ed. Cary, NC: Leadership Studies, Inc. 2012:35-36.