How can we encourage change in leadership roles?

leadership roles
© Daniil Peshkov

Chris Lewis and Pippa Malmgren, Authors of The Infinite Leader, discuss how the current education system must change in order to develop leadership roles

Here’s a riddle. What did the financial crisis, the Brexit vote and Covid all have in common? They took everyone by surprise, each had massive implications and we had no contingency plan for any of them. How can this be? In an age of leaders that are highly qualified, with wealth, loads of qualifications, experience and abundant data, how did they not see any of this coming? Could it be they lacked a quality which is not taught in schools, business or otherwise? For instance, imagination?

Our leadership models are essentially Judeo-Christian in origin. We still believe in the notion that the individual is more powerful than the team. There will be one infallible person who will lead us. Jesus and Moses are easily reinterpreted as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, but no leader achieves greatness without the team.

Education system

The more emphasis we place on the leader the less we place on the team. If it’s leadership we’re after, then we need more emphasis on the ‘ship’ and less on the leader. The cult of individual excellence and infallibility is at the heart of our education system. We have a top of the class. Someone with the highest grades. A Head Boy or Girl. But there are no marks in school for endurance or patience and you can’t build teams without it.

Could it be there’s something wrong with our model of leadership? Could it be something wrong with our education system? The research done for The Infinite Leader pointed up significant mismatches between what education gives us and what we really need for leadership.

The problem starts at an early stage when we get ‘marks’ for single correct answers and not for recognising there might actually be several. The qualifications we later go on to earn are all assessed on individual performance. We get no marks as leaders for empathy, collaboration or humility, all of which are essential leadership skills.

Short-term profit vs longer, greater rewards

Another factor in this is that we teach leaders to maximise results to get the most profit or revenues. Balance and sustainability are not a priority. So, our leaders could be making short-term maximum profits at the expense of greater rewards over a longer period of time.

We often make the mistake of also correlating confidence with competence. The two are not the same. The research done by Professor Tomas Premuzic highlights this. He showed that overconfident men will apply for a job with as little as 25% of the skills required. Women only applied when on average they had 75% of the skills required.

This leads to reckless, over-confident, poor skilled decision making. The net result is huge community damage with volatility, job loss and wealth destruction. The community is beginning to wake up to this imbalanced thinking and withdraw its support from leaders that are exploitative or do not serve the community’s interests. We need to change the way we educate our leaders, before the community rejects both them and the system they represent.


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