One of the reasons I am passionate about leadership is because I believe our leaders now and in the future have the skill, position, influence and potential to help prevent and cure suffering at work.
Suffering you might ask? Isn’t that a strong word? Well yes it is, and no, I am not even talking about the endemic slavery that exists, in our so called civilised world, or about the child labour horror which is rife still. Even though, both are indeed a terrible indictment on our levels of “civility” and care for each other as world citizens.
So what do I mean by suffering? By suffering I mean the “quiet desperation” experienced when people come to work with a heavy heart. When stress levels at work are so high employees are on medication. When levels of cynicism are high, because senior managers simply aren’t trusted. When people don’t have any control, don’t feel cared about and, are simply a “bum on a seat.” If at this point in reading you are feeling dismissive, resistant or uncomfortable and you read on, you are likely one who is able to face those inconvenient truths which life presents us with.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.” Henry Thoreau
Don’t get me wrong, I know only too well as leaders we face massive pressures and do a fantastic job most of the time. But sometimes we have to purposefully take some time out to take a really hard look, to see the inconvenient truths surrounding us.
As a leader you might think suffering at work isn’t applicable to you and your team. If your team is engaged, motivated, with a clear purpose, a great work/life balance and works harmoniously together, you could be in the small majority of leaders who actually help to relieve suffering at work. If you think you are, ask your team. If they confirm your perception, congratulations: If not, would you listen and face an inconvenient truth?
I worked with a brilliant group of students recently. We talked about issues facing our leaders both at a global level and in the corporate and business world. We looked at the economy, environment, war, diversity, technology and everything else which influences and impacts on our leadership.
We also looked at evidence out there about distrust and lack of competence of leaders at work. According to the World Economic Forum reported by “The Economist” in January 2013, only 18% of followers trust leaders. The DDI report “Time for a Leadership Revolution 2011 ” reported only 38% of leaders rated quality of leadership highly. Study after study shows employees aren’t loyal and are dissatisfied at work globally, while in the UK, the CIPD Employee Outlook report 2012 showed a massive 72% of those surveyed reported a lack of leadership and management skills.
After the students and I explored the issues currently facing leadership now and in the future, I asked them this. “What qualities and skills would you want your own leader to have, given the task ahead”? This is what they said.
“Integrity: Credibility: Wisdom: Courage: Consistency: Social Intelligence: Charisma: Vision: Communication: Appreciation: Decision making: Fairness: Justice: Rational: Creativity: Honest: Open-mindedness”
This from a group of multi-cultural students, including a cross-section of ages and work skill.
Not a mention about profit-making or sales acumen or economic prowess. When I challenged them, and queried that the list was predominantly value based. They confirmed it is those values which for them would make or break a leader. There was also a resigned cynicism because some of them did not believe leaders would buy into those values.
I was talking recently to a colleague about a change programme he was developing. He was astounded because his experience with the senior team he said (quote) “could only be described as derogatory to their subordinates.” I had come across this kind of attitude before. I find it’s mostly an unconscious slant, which some leaders have slowly assumed over the years, because of their position and zoning out of their sense of powerlessness to make a difference. I call it “The Superiority Complex.”
One of the problems with dealing with this complex is it is largely unconscious. When someone becomes conscious of negative attitudes it can be terribly painful to wake up and realise how damaging their negative stance has been. For many it is an inconvenient and painful truth, and for those who have the humility to surrender their attitude, it can be life changing.
We don’t need a revolution in leadership, because then we make people wrong and resistant and thus the denial continues. We simply need to wake up. Wake up from the sleep we’ve been in and when we do, we have to forgive ourselves for the lack of awareness our conditioning has created, and face up to the inconvenient truths and the painful albeit temporary process this can involve.
When we face up to the truth of what leadership is really about, the suffering of employees will begin to diminish. There are many great leaders and leadership experts who are effecting the shift needed. A shift is happening, and it is a heartening shift, but one which needs courage and soul-searching to really make a difference.
I have faced up to some inconvenient truths and uncomfortably have still many to face I am sure. How are you doing?
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