The Problem and the Solution

I hesitate to waste my time and yours on yet another column on leadership. Yet never has the subject been more important. We look around our world and see millions of people yearning for leaders who can help them fulfil their potential and help solve our growing list of problems.

Leadership has become a word devalued by overpromise and underdelivery, by the waffle of business schools and business books; whole industries have been built on the complexification of the subject. A Leadership Industrial Complex if you will. In the first instance, most of what they sell us is just snake-oil; it’s bullshit. But worse still, this industry has a vested interest in creating the perception of an elite and untouchable knowledge.

This creates two baleful problems.

Firstly, it inhibits those already in leadership positions from fulfilling their potential. And secondly, even worse, it excludes whole sections of society from believing that leadership is something they can aspire to.

We need a new understanding, one that illuminates rather than obscures, includes rather than excludes. The reality is that millions of us are leaders: whether you run a hospital ward, a weekend football team, a supermarket or a thirty-person start-up: anybody who has people who depend on them is a leader. It will enrich all our lives if greater numbers amongst us not only recognise the leadership opportunity we have, but feel more confident and able to grasp it.

Not only are leaders all around us, but the hierarchical world we grew up in is disappearing. Old-fashioned, top-down management is becoming less effective and less relevant. It doesn’t work because it is too slow, too unresponsive and too one dimensional; it doesn’t work because it restricts rather than liberates; and it doesn’t work for the simple reason that people won’t put up with it. Today, as never before, people expect to have a voice. Leaders at all levels must build cultures that encourage people to speak up and out, and respond effectively and inclusively when they do. We can only achieve our collective potential by unlocking the potential of the hundreds of thousands of leaders in our midst.

Over the past decade I have been responsible for companies on every continent, companies big and small, and worked with many more, either as my clients, or consulting with them on the leadership challenges they face. In that time, I discovered that ultimately no matter their location, category or size, the nature of their problems (and all organisations have problems) always boiled back to one universal truth. At the heart of all organisational challenges the problem is always leadership. And better leadership is always the solution.

I have no time for theories about which people or personality types make better leaders. If you have ever been told this, put it from your mind. That there is a ‘leadership type’ is a myth that simply serves to exclude. Indeed, the greatest and most damaging fallacy that surrounds the subject is that it is some exalted state – a secret knowledge available only to a chosen or fortunate few. I believe everybody has the potential to lead and in reality many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, already do.

My ambition is to transform our understanding of what leadership is and how to do it well. Leadership is difficult, but not complicated and my aim with this column will be to wipe away some of the bullshit that surrounds the subject and in doing so, make better leaders of us all.