Psychological health

6 Lessons for Improving Leaders and Leadership

A few years ago, a group of leadership scholars came together to criticize how leadership is studied and practiced in the world today. Some suggestions are described below.

1. Focusing too much on the leader. We put a lot of our attention on the leader. Jim Mendel called it “the romance of driving.” When good (or bad) things happen in an organization or country, we give the leader more credit than he or she deserves, and tend to overlook the contributions of others.

Take, for example, the outrageous salaries paid to CEOs, perhaps because of their personal influence on the bottom line, when we know that success is the work of many working together. Or consider that US presidents are blamed for bad economics when myriad factors are at play completely beyond the president’s control.

the lesson: Look at the big picture. Leadership is built by leaders and team members who work together. Work to overcome the tendency/bias to attribute the outcome to the leader.

2. The wrong people are often placed in leadership positions. We don’t do a good enough job choosing people for leadership positions. All too often, narcissistic and self-promoting individuals stand out in choosing a leader, and we end up with self-serving leaders who care more about their progress than the success of the team.

the lesson: do not decide with the look. Focus on selecting leaders who can build great teams, encourage collaboration, treat followers fairly, and develop shared leadership capabilities.

3. We do not give enough attention to promoting good/ethical leadership. Effective leadership and good leadership are not the same. Leaders who focus only on results without considering the impact on the team and doing the right thing (such as “win at any cost” or “the end justifies the means”), in the long run, can be incredibly devastating.

the lesson: Giving conscious attention to encouraging ethical behavior in all members of the organization, but especially holding leaders accountable for unethical acts. Most organizations have a mission statement and/or a vision statement. How about a “statement of ethics”, or at least incorporating ethics as a core component of the mission?

4. Leadership is very male-centric. Although women are making progress in reaching leadership positions, there is still a strong male bias. Classical research indicates that when we think of a leader, we think of masculine as well as masculine qualities (“Think leader, think male”). However, many of the qualities that women bring to the negotiating table, such as relationship skills and greater sensitivity to ethical issues, serve them well in leadership positions.

the lesson: Leadership experts Stephanie Johnson and Christine LaSirenza suggest that we first need to change the old stereotype of a strong leader and agent and recognize the importance of relationship skills in leadership. They also recommend “blind” selection of leaders when possible, to not allow gender to infiltrate the evaluation of candidates.

5. Leadership is West-centric. Most leadership theories were developed in the United States and Western Europe and these theories dominate the selection and development of leaders worldwide. However, cultural influences can influence leadership and follower. Moreover, biases often exist when the leader or potential leader is from a different country or culture.

the lesson: Cultural sensitivity is a must for effective leadership. We in the West have a lot to learn from leaders and leadership in other countries.

6. We need to develop leadership better. Leadership development tends to focus primarily on high-level leaders, is very short in allotted time, and there is little follow-up. In some cases, there is little concern about a leader’s motivation to develop and improve. In addition, leaders are often trained “in isolation” without the involvement of team members.

the lesson: Take leadership development seriously. As leadership development expert David Day suggests, be aware that the leader has the drive to develop, that there is enough time dedicated for actual development to occur, and that development is long-term and continuous, incorporating both training and experience. Furthermore, Day distinguishes between “leader development”—which focuses solely on the leader—and “leadership development”—increasing the leadership ability of the leader and the work team. The latter approach is better, as it builds leadership capabilities for the future.

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