Dr. Douglas Kong – The Challenge of Leadership Today

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There is an urgent need for good leadership today.

Why? The challenges facing our time are critical. We are facing a time of disruption and upheaval, for while innovation in Automation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence is bringing us to an exciting future, it also brings with them tremendous disruption to our social and economic order. In order to transit safely to the next stage of our society, we need leadership, great leadership that is responsive not only to the times but to the people they lead. Such leadership must be able to harness the very best of talent we have in our people, and collectively with such talent, come up with innovative and effective ways of confronting the problems that we are all facing together. For the important thing is for the organization to survive and to keep competing in the marketplace. It is too easy to focus on the technology and forget that it is people who form an organization and it is people who use technology to fight, compete and ensure that the business survive.

I have previously asserted (Kong, 2015) that as far as business organizations are concerned, the kinds of leadership that matter are leadership in the midst of competition, and leadership that is needed for innovation and creativity.

Two Kinds of Leadership

Competitive Leadership is focussed on a task and beating the competition and is best exemplified in military leadership where the focus is on winning and gaining the upper hand in battle. In situations where it is highly competitive (as in actual competition for a prize or in a business competition to be the winner), this kind of leadership is necessary. The requirements of a battle require the leader to focus on task and performance using a command-and-control style while the task is underway.

The issue with business competition is that unlike a battle or a prize competition, it is ongoing for quite a considerable amount of time. In a way, Steve Jobs embodied this attitude when he was designing and making the iPhone. Descriptions of how he was secretive, how his relationships with subordinates can be curt, controlling and sometimes dismissive, do indicate a battle situation where winning was critical. It allowed the iPhone to win without letting the secrets Steve was innovating out to his competitors.

Other situations of competition where there is a prize or award as in an award of a tender or job are similar. It requires the kind of leadership that holds the team together to perform a task until the goal is achieved. Tasks and roles are well defined, relationship niceties are minimised, and authority is often asserted by the leader so that the tasks are all executed according to desired specifications.

For innovation, creativity and cooperation, you need a different leadership style to effect that kind of transformation. It is aptly called Transformational Leadership. For transformational leadership, the emphasis is on relationships and trust. When we say that engaging employees is the basis of getting better productivity from them, this is certainly true. Employees when they are thus engaged felt trusted and respected, have a sense of clarity and are committed to the company’s goals. This most certainly can help the organization to achieve better productivity because everybody is working as a team. That’s how employee engagement achieves productivity goals effortlessly.

Trust is the bedrock of good organizational health

Patrick Lencioni articulated this very well in his book “The Advantage”. ‘The Advantage’ is organizational health. And organizational health rests on a bedrock of trust. When trust is present, conflict can be openly aired and constructively resolved. This will lead to a commitment to the team and the organization, and there is accountability to both each other and to objectives and certainly leads to results. When this happens, there is minimal confusion and politics, improved morale, improved productivity, and low employee turnover.  That is a healthy organization and of course, all the terms I use to describe is frightfully familiar, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, most leaders prefer to depend on hard science and cold facts. And this means data crunching measurable results, numbers, objectives and similar. This is the “smart” organization to use Lencioni’s terminology. Very clever but not reaching the heart and soul of the problem. It is dealing with facts and numbers rather than with real people.

Trust is the bedrock of good organizational health

Which leadership style to use

Competitive leadership is focused on task, performance and results, while transformative leadership is focused on trust, commitment, and accountability although ultimately results are affected positively in a different way. Both styles of leadership are an adaptation to the environment. In fact, competitive leadership and transformative leadership are complementary. In a competitive situation, employees and followers have to obey unconditionally. If during normal conditions they are not engaged, then the leadership is clearly authoritarian. But if during normal conditions, they are engaged, employees are likely to be loyal and committed as well as being able to perform well in a competitive situation.

Leadership styles can successfully coexist

In the case of Steve Jobs, his capable right-hand man Tim Cook has a relationship-oriented style which allowed him to engage employees in a way Steve was not able to. Hence, they complemented each other. When Tim Cook took over from Steve at the latter’s demise, he adopted a fresh new style by retaining his democratic managerial style and retaining some of Steve’s existing practices and evolved a blended style with elements of both transformational and competitive leadership.

That is to say that the two styles of leadership which an organization needs, a competitive style to win, and a transformative style to hold the organization together, must be simultaneously held in a healthy mix within the leader himself or the leadership team (while residing in different members of the said team). They can reside in the same leader in a blended leadership style, or they can reside in a team of two with complementary styles.

Certainly, I know personally of a few business owners who are like Steve in personality, who then enlisted a second lieutenant to give a relational democratic style to the leadership. It should be noted that the best of both leadership style produces results, spectacular results. Steve Jobs and Tim Cook are a good illustration of what the best of both leadership style can produce.

The ‘best’ leadership requires more than just skills and techniques

Note that the best of leadership is not brought about through leadership skills or techniques, important though they may be. They were the outflow of inner passion, a commitment not only to the task at hand but also to the people they were leading. It is a kind of Moral Leadership that reflects the strength of personality in those who exercise them. That is what is sorely needed today.

In the midst of great technological change and shifts, it is easy to fall back on facts, big data and techniques. This is being smart and makes use of your intelligence in applying them. Adopting such a stance would lead to exactly the kind of smart organization that Lencioni was talking about. Leading but not leading with problems of morale, trust, accountability and ultimately in problems of productivity. It carries in his track issues of all kinds of organizational and interdepartmental conflicts and politics and jockeying for positions of power. This is surely not the way to manage change, especially spectacular change. This is the ultimate dysfunctional organization, or as my colleague Earl Hopper calls it, an organization in trauma.

Coaching supports a great leader

Note that in this regard, Tim Cook has a coaching background while Steven Jobs, with a life history of psychological trauma, made extensive use of coaches. Coaching clarifies things and relationships and allows the coachee to see it in terms of responsibility, taking charge, and initiating change.

I certainly do believe that the ultimate challenge today in Leadership is a courageous, moral leader that is willing to take the responsibility of moving forward in the face of uncertainty and danger. As organizations, leaders must act like Moses willing to lead his followers into the promised land surrounded by uncertainty, danger and enemies all around. As leaders, can we rise up to the challenge?

Talk to Dr Douglas Kong about Leadership Coaching.

Schedule a one-to-one with Dr Douglas Kong to discuss how you can be the best leader for your organization and aspire to be at the top and excel at what you do best.

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