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Better Leadership - Anti-Hierarchical Thinking

The CIPD seems to be on a bit of a leadership kick in 2014. It’s always a hot topic and there’s never a shortage of gurus and bestselling books, but despite decades of evolving definitions, training courses and how-to guides, organisational surveys still tend to show dissatisfaction with workplace leadership. For many employers, this is understandably a little disappointing after spending so much money on pricey leadership development programmes, mentoring, retreats and so on.

An enlarged perspective
However, the CIPD’s latest report suggests that perhaps the focus has been too narrow up to now. It’s not a case of individual leaders being unskilled (especially not after all that training) but more that the organisational context doesn’t allow them to fully apply their leadership capabilities. For example, if all your organisational processes and ways of working were formed in a classic ‘command & control’ culture, then anyone attempting a more modern, inclusive, empowering mode of leading is going to be swimming against the tide (or to put it another way, it would be like sending them on a scuba diving course and then posting them to the Sahara).

An unhelpful organisational context
The research spots four key organisational factors that act as brakes or inhibitors on good leadership; they are:
• Bureaucratic and hierarchical systems – when you’re trying to encourage all managers to take a leadership perspective, old systems can undermine their ability to take timely decisions.
• An emphasis on the short-term and bottom-line – too often (especially in the economic conditions of recent years) the focus is on profit and delivery now rather than producing quality.
• Individualism – when performance is judged on an individual basis, there’s little encouragement to think or act collaboratively, restricting teamwork possibilities.
• It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ – this mentality is still widespread and not only prevents effective working between management/leadership and the workforce but also creates divisions within that workforce.

A step by step approach
What all this means of course, is that it’s not enough to throw some development at your leaders, you also need to change the environment in which they are expected to lead (or at least assess that environment to ensure that it’s compatible with what you want to achieve). The report prescribes the following:
1. Define exactly what kind of leadership you need given the challenges you’re facing now and in the future.
2. Understand the barriers (social, cultural, psychological) to achieving that needed leadership.
3. Engage with the key stakeholders (HR cannot do it alone) who have the heft to overcome those barriers and change the culture.

The research included several large organisations in various sectors in the UK and a survey of learning and development professionals. The full report can be downloaded here.


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