I’ve discussed the leadership crisis and its connection to wellbeing in my posts, articles, podcasts, and events extensively over the past 2-years. I’ve continued to emphasise that workplace wellbeing is about the organisational conditions that foster thriving, not just free gym memberships and stress-management webinars. However, I’ve continually struggled to define or explain how we’ve reached the leadership crisis so often but vaguely discussed. Thus, blaming it, in part at least, for the workplace wellbeing challenges we are now experiencing, frequently felt like a half-formed hypothesis that I knew to be true, but couldn’t prove. I was dissatisfied and frustrated that I couldn’t easily articulate what was at play.
Then I read this book; The End of Leadership as We Know It: What It Takes to Lead in Today’s Volatile and Complex World. By Steve Garcia and Dan Fisher.
What I thought the causes of the leadership crisis were (kind of):
We often put poor leadership down to behaviours like toxic, narcissistic, or psychopathic traits. We also consider male-dominance, unpreparedness, or incompetence as explanations for why leaders seem to be getting it so wrong. This is unsurprising because as Garcia and Fisher point out,
“Definitions of leadership have long focussed on individual characteristics. These describe leadership as a set of traits….and behaviours …From this perspective, leadership is about the individual.”
As a result, we tend to look in these same places for the reasons for leadership failures. However, people in leadership roles often receive extensive training, coaching, and mentoring to account for these short-comings, and are still finding themselves increasingly overwhelmed, burnt-out, and unable to deliver on their stakeholder’s expectations. There is considerable evidence to support this struggle. According to a study by Lending Tree using data from Q1 2022;
“20.8% of private sector businesses in the U.S. fail within the first year. After five years, 48.4% have faltered. After 10 years, 65.1% of businesses have failed.”
We are also witnessing an increase in business giants such as Enron and Lehman Brothers collapse. Furthermore, in 2016, McKinsey reported that;
“…the average lifespan of companies listed in Standard & Poor’s 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today, it is less than 18 years.”
My belief is that most people are inherently good, and given the choice, would do work that creates positive outcomes for business, people, and planet. Yet, as the above statistics indicate, it seems that we are struggling more and more to achieve this for the long-term. Unfortunately, this turbulence creates accumulating strain on the wellbeing of leaders and that of their employees. It also creates negative downstream impact on societies and economies, making the conditions for doing business even more challenging, and so the cycle goes on.
There seems to be a strong correlation between increasing business instability and the declining wellbeing of the working population (if you know of a study on this, I’d love to read it). Thus, the reason leaders are being blamed for our mental health and wellbeing crises, is because employees feel that they are the victims of the poor decisions and actions of their leaders. Afterall, aren’t leaders supposed to be leading them into prosperity not chaos and languishing?
When we understand workplace wellbeing only in terms of ‘yoghurt and yoga’, we miss out on the opportunity to strengthen our businesses and create resilience against the inevitable and increasing headwinds we face.
So, what’s actually at play?
I will present some themes by drawing on quotes from the book to help make better sense of the relationship between leadership and wellbeing in the modern workplace. By doing so, I hope, to be able to articulate better than I ever have, why the future of successful business is hinged on a more collaborative relationship between these two factors, and why leaders MUST become more committed and adept at achieving this.
The blind leading the disengaged.
“We can forgive leaders who grew up in the 20th Century for wondering what has hit them.”
We have leaders who are now in unchartered and rapidly changing territory, leading an increasingly empowered and distrusting workforce. Workers feel like they aren’t being led at all. They are disengaged due to a lack of direction, clarity, or confidence in the future. Meanwhile, leaders exhaust themselves continuously pushing the cart up a blind hill, trying to persuade their apathetic troops that this is the best route to take. The odds of failure and burnout are high and showing.
Old habits die hard
“[Leaders commonly make mistakes] often because they were simply following what they had been taught or what had worked with previous generations.”
Employees can feel the strain of the chaos and they know their leaders can’t possibly come up with all the answers as quickly as they are needed. They are keen to be part of the crew that helps identify the options, rapidly investigate, and experiment with them, and then navigate a way forward. But for this to work effectively, they are asking for autonomy, flexibility, and collaboration. However, too often, their leaders are still serving up a diet of command, control, hierarchy, bureaucracy, and siloes. This mismatch creates a them versus us culture, and as relationships are the anchor of wellbeing, it declines on both sides.
A failure to adapt
“Many leaders are frustrated and anxious, wondering why they can’t get their organizations to respond and execute as they once did.”
Leaders who are still applying quarterly senior leadership planning and strategy cycles, cascaded execution, and a micro-management culture have failed to adapt. As Garcia and Fisher point out, this methodology worked when the business world was comparably more stable and predictable. These layers of burdensome hierarchy and bureaucracy now leave time, expertise, and good will on the table which is slowly and painfully eroding the health of both employees and businesses operating in a VUCA environment.
The longer it takes for leaders to understand that ‘What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There’ (Martin Goldsmith), the worse the wellbeing and leadership crises will become. This is a downward moving spiral that must be recognised and addressed.
Time is money (and wellbeing)
“This failure proves especially damaging for leaders who think they are responding adeptly to market shifts, when in fact they are only wasting valuable time.”
The pandemic has made people more aware of how precious time is and far less tolerant of having their time wasted by others. Whether in the workplace, stuck in a traffic jam, or waiting for assistance at the self-service checkout, time-wasting has, for many, become the 8th deadly sin.
Respecting, protecting, and meaningfully filling employees’ time is not something leadership development has historically emphasised, but the most progressive leadership influencers, academics, and practitioners have increasingly been alluding to the need for this for some time. In a world in which the demands on our time both inside and outside of work seem never-ending, time-wasting leads to feelings of being out of control, under-valued, and drives apathy and resentment. All of which make employees disinclined to give their full potential to their organisation or ‘boss’ and in turn, makes it harder for everyone to reach targets and deliver missions. This is linked to the need for reaching our potential and feeling a sense of accomplishment, necessary to optimse our wellbeing.
So, what’s the answer?
“Effective leaders act as a catalyst and connector, getting people to initiate change themselves at the ground level in response to emerging developments.”
There isn’t a single answer to this challenge. Leadership is undergoing a phenomenal transformation, and there’s no silver bullet that will get us there quickly and without resistance and casualties along the way. However, I believe, there is a single foundation that can create a solid platform for growth. That foundation is a shift toward relational leadership, distributed leadership, and human-centric leadership. I wrote about this a number of times in my article 5 real cases when short-term people decisions led to long-term costs and how to avoid them.
The art of leadership is to effectively and efficiently deploy the energy of your followers to yield the greatest outcomes for the longest period. I.E., human sustainability in ‘The Infinite Game’ of business.
In other words, leadership is now about fostering a foundation of wellbeing and thriving that multiplies the ideas and vitality in our businesses quickly enough to respond to the ever-changing, disruptive, and unpredictable environment we now face. Advanced planning is out. Dynamic, responsive, and energised trial, error, learn, and adapt are in, and that requires all of the hearts and minds in our organisations, not just a select few.
It is a very different leadership recipe compared to the one we’ve been using for the past 150-years. However, what’s needed to succeed now is a big slice of humble pie.
“Enlisting colleagues, though, means that leaders must be open to others’ feedback, even when it challenges preconceived notions or established strategies or plans.”
As the late Chris Argyris explained, this identity as a highly successful professional makes it hard to learn. When your sense of self-worth is based on your percieved intelligence and track record of success, it is all too easy to stray from self-confidence into intellectual arrogance and discount or dismiss challenging information. When you don’t understand something you assume it’s irrelevant. When people share challenging feedback, you ignore it, get defensive, or blame others. Like a sophisticated ostrich, you keep your head in the sand.”
The recipe for long-term success
The recipe for employee wellbeing, and thus consistently high performance is,
- an optimistic outlook
- opportunities to reach one’s potential
- good physical and mental health
- reliable and supportive relationships
- and a sense of purpose and meaning
The modern leader’s role is to curate the conditions in which those factors can flourish. This was well illustrated in another of my favourite books; The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh.
Once the conditions are correct, wellbeing can then become the fuel and dynamism that enables the business to rapidly respond and adapt to the ever-changing environment outside, thus providing the context for the business to thrive and flourish whatever the weather.
Current leaders are struggling because they are applying old school techniques to a new world environment. Employee capacity and skills are currently being squandered. As a result, neither is winning in the wellbeing stakes.
What’s needed is a signficant transformation in how we approach leadership development as well as empowering and educating employees on how to be an effective employee in the future of work (which is already here). Stuctures, networks, and skills need an overhaul and personal accountability needs to be increased across all levels of our organisations. This is a synchronised swimming display, to succeed, everyone must play their part. However, the swimmers need the permission to innovate the new artistic moves that are now required to win the gold medals in the competitive game of business olympics and that must come from their coaches.