Leadership continues to be studied by virtually every consultant and professor in the management field. Why? After years of conferences, seminars and readings I wondered if I could get interested in one more, but groups I work with needed me to attend the HRPS (www.hrps.org – Human Resource Planning Society annual conference this past week in Fort Lauderdale – not a bad place to escape the last gasps of northern winter, either).
I have to say I was startled by the insights generated – not new, but ever more powerfully presented as time helps explanations evolve and focus. HRPS focuses on senior level HR stategies and inevitably these point to leadership. We asked ourselves the key question: Why don’t senior line management teams more frequently follow research as far back as the Work in America study in 1972, if not farther, as it’s author pointed out in his presentation of his 2005 update of it.
Since at least then we have known exactly what practices make for better results AND happier people. They are: egalitarian structure and fair pay and rewards for performance; ethics, respect and security policies (including work-life balance); high levels of training, involvement, engagement and two-way communication and coaching… for creativity and participation of staff in every aspect of the business
Since we can state all this in one sentence, and companies in every industry prove the premise that results and happy employees go hand in hand, why don’t we see it applied in more than a few percent of organizations in any given industry? The answer is leadership.
Jim Collins defines 5 levels in his now classic 2002 book, Good to Great. All but the top, level 5 leaders miss the key point that leadership is not about what you, the leader, can do, but about what you can help and motivate others to do, thus leveraging everyone’s results. Southwest Air, Toyota, Nucor, and a host of others show how it is not only possible, but easily sustainable to bring out the best in the vast majority of staff, with the result of multiplying financial results by 5 or 10 times or more those of companies that don’t do this.
Why don’t these other types of leaders latch on? I suppose there’s a list of reasons including pure greed (the most successful companies’ CEOs take home about 15 to 40 times their lowest paid workers versus a now-common US level of 100 to 500 times in less successful companies. Of course most successful leaders make up for this "shortfall" because they are major shareholders of stock worth 5 to 10 times the average value for average companies, so there must be other explanations.
At the end of the day, it comes down to simply a world view held by the different types of leaders. The most successful believe people are grown-ups who want to contribute and are able to figure out how if supported, treated well, engaged and allowed the room to do creative projects. The others believe employees are peasants to be ordered, fired, laid off, threatened and punished into performing. Duh. Is there any surprise about who’s going to win in the long run?