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Leaders must engage and trust employees in this age where finding other career opportunities is easier. (George Doyle/(c) George Doyle)
Leaders must engage and trust employees in this age where finding other career opportunities is easier. (George Doyle/(c) George Doyle)

Leadership Advice

Today's leaders must ask, not demand Add to ...

Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and mass collaboration projects like Wikipedia demonstrate that very complex activities can happen these days without formal leadership. That should be prompting leaders to ask themselves a pointed question: “Why would people follow you if they don’t have to?,” leadership consultant Emmanuel Gobillot warned the Human Resources Professionals Association at its national conference in Toronto last week.

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The British-based author of Leadershift shared his recommendations on leading in a networked world that makes control and job title less essential in an interview with The Globe and Mail’s Wallace Immen:

What’s behind the leader shift?

Most of what has changed is not about leaders but about followers. People still want to be led by people who are worth following. But a lot of trends are changing the type of followers in workplaces, so to be a relevant leader you have to engage them differently. You can’t rely on the things that have worked for you past.

What are the factors that are changing?

The key changes are around diversity: the variety of thinking coming from different generations in the work force, from different cultures as immigration creates a global mix of workers and from the fact that business is now done increasingly across boundaries.

Another trend is what I call the democratic shift: you can no longer coerce people into doing things because talent can move more easily to another employer or country than in the past. Technology is also enabling people to communicate more freely and find career options much more easily. So leaders have to do more to focus on people and engage them in the task to keep them loyal.

What’s the most difficult thing for established leaders to grasp?

It’s the fact that you’re in charge, but not in control. In reality, performance tends to happen irrespective of whether or not the leader is involved. I think that’s really hard for traditional leaders to grasp, because it requires an enormous amount of trust. Leaders are worried that if they let down their vigilance, people will stop working. But in reality, most people are self-motivated to do their best work. If a leader defines the goals clearly enough, people will do their best without you having to specify what they do and how they do it.

There are very, very few people out there who are coming to work in the mindset of “I’m going to destroy everything I do today.” The trouble is for that one in a thousand, many leaders take the view that the other 999 are potential problems as well.

Why do you say many have forgotten the idea of a company?

The idea is company is companionship, coming together for a purpose and delivery of something. I get calls from CEOs asking me to help them improve collaboration and break down silos. They say “our divisions aren’t working with each other.” I say the problem begins with the fact they think of them as divisions rather than as part of the whole. The problem is that all too many companies have become organizations, with everything designed for flow charts and replication. Because of that leaders tend to set up recognizable structures and boundaries. They forget that the goal of the organization should be to achieve the greater purpose of the company. Breaking down silos and developing understanding that we’re all in this together will be important actions for future leaders.

How should leaders handle social media?

I think you have to be wary of blanket advice because it’s dependent on the industry you work in and the nature of the workplace. But by and large you have to merge work and life somehow and social media have become a big part of people’s lives and it builds community.

Most employees are intelligent members of society capable of making good choices, but many companies still restrict access to social media. My questions is: What are you frightened about? If it’s about someone leaking company secrets onto Twitter, you’re better off creating a policy about appropriate posts than banning Twitter. Social media have become so ubiquitous you’ll eventually have to change the policy. Organizations are going to have play catch up because they’re excluding themselves from something that is growing at a phenomenal rate and it can help make employees – no matter where they’re located in the world – feel like they’re part of the same community.

Are leaders getting the message?

Yes, I think they know the fundamentals are changing. At the recent Davos conference they were asking big questions about whether the system is broken and how we need to rethink how we lead organizations. The difficulty is the pressure cooker environment that leaders operate in today makes it hard to change habits that have developed over time. In the current economy, leaders can become so focused on the immediate situation that they fail to see or try options for the longer term.

My advice is don’t be lulled into not asking bigger questions and involve your people in discussions about what’s going on that needs to be addressed. That will get people thinking about their purpose and how they play a role in success. What’s the point of surviving the crisis if no one wants to be around at the end of it?

So do leaders have a future?

I’ve seen self-managed teams work, but even self-managed teams develop a dynamic where someone takes charge and influences the final decision. We need people to help us navigate and help us organize our own thoughts around what needs to be done. If nothing else we’re going to need more people who take on leadership roles, even if they don’t have the title.

What steps should leaders be taking to be successful in the future?

We’ve had lots of theories about what makes a leader great. For me, it’s whatever enables you to be at your best: to be yourself just better – with skills and self awareness, self control and the ability to understand people. If you’re doing that, leadership comes naturally. When it falls apart is when you try to ape something you’ve never been, because people can sense that you’re playing at leadership.

Most leaders could work more on self awareness. Most don’t have someone who can tell them what’s going wrong; someone who can hold up a mirror and say “this is what needs work.” You have to be willing to say “give me the straight message and I’ll learn from it.”

Another factor is maturity, being comfortable in your own skin so that you’re not trying to prove something. When you know what you believe and what are your flaws, you become comfortable with the value you bring. Once you’ve got that then you’re ready to make yourself better.

In the end, we all have a great ability to inspire change by doing small things consistently. Employees are watching you all the time for signals and you have a massive ability to change the system quickly if you are consistent in your messages.

Great leaders don’t necessarily make people happy – they make them grow. Ask yourself: Am I worth following? Am I easy to follow? And have I made those I lead feel stronger and more capable?

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