The vexed question of leadership

A recent survey by the Centre for Workplace Leadership, a research institute based at the University of Melbourne, reveals that three out of every four Australian workers are dissatisfied with their managers. They agreed that our workplaces need better management and leadership. Ironically, three out of four workers also believe that they possess the skills needed to lead effectively. The authors of the report find this figure ‘encouraging’. But let’s look at this issue from a different perspective.

Seventy-five percent of workers believe, perhaps with good reason, that their managers could be providing them with more effective leadership. These managers, of course, did not enter the workforce as managers. They started at the bottom of the ladder. It’s a fair assumption that early in their careers a healthy percentage of future managers were dissatisfied with their supervisors, and that they believed they had what it took to rise to leadership positions. But nothing changed once they attained those coveted roles. Three-quarters of workers remain unimpressed with their leaders’ managerial skills. In other words, our self-assessment of our leadership ability may conflict radically with our subordinates’ impressions of our talents.

This is hardly surprising. Overconfidence is a core human characteristic. Survey after survey has shown that we are more likely to rate our abilities as above average in many areas of our lives. Of course, unless we’ve undergone specialised training, we’ll be realistic about our abilities as brain surgeons or rocket scientists. But leadership is such a nebulous concept. The qualities I revere in a leader may differ greatly from those you consider essential. Which sets the scene for tension within the workplace.

Here’s the terrible secret of overconfidence: while it may help you gain a promotion, it will limit you as a leader. Until you recognise your hubris, your staff members are going to rate you down. Here’s why. Leadership is challenging. Many different people have widely varying expectations of you. Your manager’s needs differ from your staff’s. Only an exceptional leader could fulfil all these expectations, and most of us are, by definition, less than exceptional. The more overconfident you are, the more blind spots you have to defend. And once you become defensive, you lose your power as a leader.

This problem is pervasive in the workplace. A core issue underpinning many workplace conflicts is a team member’s belief that he or she could do a better job than the team leader or manager. This belief may not be immediately apparent. It’s likely to be hidden. Most people won’t directly state that they would be more effective as leaders. However, this issue will emerge once a conflict erupts, and a mediator explores the reasons behind the tension in one-on-one conversations. Once this perception surfaces, it’s essential to explore the question of leadership skills with the disaffected team member in greater depth:

  • what skills do they believe are most important for leaders?
  • where do they believe that their team (and¬†not their team leader) is underperforming?
  • what ¬†specific leadership skills does their leader lack? Ask for examples that support this assessment
  • Ask for examples that would support the opposite belief–that their leader is in fact effective in this area
  • what does their leader do well? Ask for examples that support this assessment
  • in what areas do they believe they could provide more effective leadership? Ask for evidence to support this self-assessment
  • in which areas do their leadership skills require more development? Ask for evidence to support this assessment
  • what positive steps could they take to work with their leader to ensure that their team works effectively?

After such a conversation, it is highly unlikely that the discontented team member will be able to maintain his or her overconfidence. Yes, it is probable that the team leader or manager involved will require some further leadership development. But after a similar conversation with the leader, your mediator will be able to bring both parties together, to explore the vexed question of leadership, and to develop solutions that will work for them both.



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