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Are leadership roles harder these days?

A board colleague of mine recently commented that ‘Leadership roles are so much harder these days’ to general agreement around the table. Its one of those things that everyone knows isn’t it. Afterwards I found myself querying the view and asking why she thought that was the case. Everything she listed was in existence when I was in ‘corporate’ life and had been the subject of many coaching conversations since I left that world and went out on my own. And thats been a long time. So nothing was new.

Certainly when I work with leaders around the country I see that many work long hours and have a fair amount of stress in their life. In my first job an 80 hour week was normal so long hours aren’t new. And yes everyone was under stress to deliver.

What I see a lot of is poor leadership, and I’m not saying thats new either. I just wonder if we are buying into a view that ‘leadership roles are hard’, when it’s the lack of leadership that makes it hard.

I still see unwillingness to delegate. I still see unwillingness to empower. I now hear the need to be ‘across everything’ as a euphemism for either ‘high need for control’ or ‘doing it all myself’. I still see critique without feedback and correction without coaching. I still see people with limited ability to relate to others being put into team leadership roles and making it tough on themselves and others just for a title or position. I still see unreasonableness from above i.e. the demanding of impossible targets, deadlines, KPI’s all in the name of being bold or having a BHAG (do they teach this in business school because its endemic?). I still see a lot of ‘tell’ and little ‘ask’. I still see ‘I am the boss so do as I say and don’t question me’. There are still hierarchies, and there are still intelligent people just doing what they are told instead of thinking.

What has changed is the speed of information flow, the urgency of e-mail and the mobile phone, the on-line at all time availability of broadband and therefore access to all our cloud based tools. Of course none of these were around when I was in the corporate world (the first mobile phone I had was to be on emergency call for incident response). I actually remember thinking that the laptop I was being given would give me the freedom to have work/life balance, oh what a fool I must have been.

This world of immediacy with its online 24/7, fast pace, big data, ‘give me it now’ culture is very different. We get upset when downloads are slow, when websites ‘think’ and we have to queue for anything. This kind of world creates time pressure with little room to escape (we had pressure but no mobile phones so we could escape). It now takes those with a lot of courage to ignore our time pressures and chose to take the time to practice the essentials of what leadership is; engagement with your people to support them in delivering for you (ask questions, give feedback, coach, provide clarity, test their ideas, ask for ideas, dialogue and discourse, engage and motivate, delegate and empower etc etc). It takes bravery to take time out just to think; to reflect, review, consider, test your own thinking the way a good leader does.

So I don’t really think that leadership itself is any harder than its always been. I don’t even think the choices of leadership are any different ( I think the choice is still ‘do I lead or do I do it all myself?’). Where my board colleague and I did agree was that the pressure of time and demands from above made leadership a harder, braver, more career courageous choice to make.


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