What It Takes to Lead Now

A majority of managers just don't understand what it means to be a leader.

That's a conclusion that I draw from a recent global survey by McKinsey and Company about what it takes to manage corporate performance. Only 48% of managers surveyed believed that they need to inspire and only 46% believed it was their responsibility to provide direction during this crisis. The numbers for inspiration and direction actually drop to 45% and 39% respectively when considered as behaviors for how to manage post-crisis.

More troubling, only 30% of managers felt that they needed to motivate their employees during the crisis and just 23% did post-crisis. The need for accountability ranked low too, just 23% for crisis and only 18% post-crisis. Innovation also ranked low, just 33% believed it was necessary now, but some 46% did believe it was necessary post-crisis.

If a majority of managers do not feel that inspiration and direction are necessary for managing corporate performance, and that motivation and accountability are not essential, then our companies are in far worse shape than imagined.

The study does not measure what I believe most managers think their jobs are: getting things done. But execution without adequate leadership is short-sighted. It will carry a company through a quarter or a year, but it will not provide a foundation for what organizations really need to do, and that is to grow. Leadership requires foresight as well as the ability to execute. Foresight points you in the right direction so that your execution can serve customer needs now and lay the foundation for continued service.

Therefore, it is necessary to reframe what inspiration and direction means.

Inspiration, as McKinsey describes it, falls under "leadership... so that leaders inspire others and shape their actions." The word inspiration may confuse, even overwhelm, most managers because they may feel they need to orate like Winston Churchill or lead like Colin Powell. No, inspiration is rooted in personal example. Managers can inspire by putting employees in position to succeed and then by helping them get the work done right in a timely fashion. More importantly, good managers connect with their employees individually to support, coach, and challenge them to succeed. That all adds up to creating a more inspired workplace.

Direction, as the McKinsey survey sees it, is "capacity to articulate where company is heading... and to align people properly." Few managers I know would disagree with that concept, but many will think it is senior management's job, not theirs. It's too bad, because alignment (getting people to pull together for the same goals) actually happens on the front lines. It is up to managers to ensure that people understand what is expected of them and how they must execute. That requires good direction.

There is one company seeking to rethink what it means to lead. According to the Wall Street Journal, GE has revised the curriculum at Crotonville, its famed management development center, to learn from mistakes it made in the current recession. There is an emphasis on teaching executives to focus on humility and listening as well as encouraging them "to challenge assumptions, think more globally," and be "more accountable." Listening, humility, and accountability are good first steps to inspiration; and assumption busting and global thinking may help with setting better direction.

Leadership is essential to improvement. While more than two-thirds of Americans, according to the National Leadership Index for 2009 published by the Harvard Kennedy School, believe "we have a leadership crisis," nearly nine in ten (87%) believe that "problems we face today can be solved through effective leadership."

Clearly leaders have their work cut out for them.

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