Leadership: Cynics and symptoms

This year will not be an easy year for leaders. It goes without saying therefore, that it will be even worse for followers.
Here’s sample of the problems leaders face that landed on my desk over the summer break. And cursory glance at media headlines in the same period suggests plethora of tricky issues across range of organisational activities are lying in wait for leaders of every denomination.
For example, skills shortages abound while youth unemployment keeps growing. There’s been plenty said about this phenomenon by researchers and consultants both at home and abroad. But there hasn’t been much organisational or political leadership evident to suggest anyone is seriously focused on tackling this increasingly dangerous dichotomy. So leaders with an eye and mind to bridging the gap between education and employment should step up this year.
The skills shortage issue won’t be helped by global consultancy Hay Group’s pre-Christmas revelation that New Zealand workers will get only modest pay rises this year, around three percent on average, while salaries in Asia will “continue to rocket”. The ‘war for talent’ will intensify, Hay said, despite slowing economic growth, particularly in the more developed economies.
The leadership initiatives New Zealand organisations must deploy this year will include reward strategies designed to retain and attract employees, despite the modest pay increases. That won’t be easy given that record 53,000 Kiwis moved to Australia last year and more skilled employees are looking further north to Asia. Hay suggests counter to money might be some non-financial retention strategies such as an “engaging work environment” and giving individuals more growth and development opportunities.
But when it comes to engagement, Kiwi leaders aren’t really leaders at all. As this column mentioned back in December, more than half New Zealand’s employees, 52 percent, are demotivated by managers who fail to provide success-driven “work environment”. And why is that?
Part of the problem according to some other research released in mid December, this time from Australian-based consultancy Leadership Management Australasia, is that Kiwi managers don’t communicate all that well with their employees. Accordingly, the consultancy came up with five characteristics of good manager, the top three of which are communicating clearly where the organisation is going; giving honest feedback on an individual’s performance; and, listening to and respecting employees’ decision inputs. That’s all logical and reasonable, but I can’t say the prospect of these characteristics being adopted more widely this year than in years past is all that likely.
New Zealand, like so many similar economies, has leadership problem. We bleed many of our best and potentially most promising commercial, scientific, academic, non-profit and public sector leaders. I know it’s not good to herald new year playing sour note, but we do seem somewhat wracked by leadership cynicism. Leaders too often act cynically rather than in the interests of followers. In turn, followers are more often than not cynical about whose interests their leaders represent.
My view of New Zealand Inc and its 2013 leadership prospects is, sadly, somewhat akin to the identifiers of team, corporate or nation state’s decline as articulated by American management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
Moss Kanter’s nine symptoms of decline include:
• Decreased communication – decisions are made in secret and people mistrust official statements.
• Increased criticism and blame – people are dressed down in public and scapegoats are sacrificed.
• Respect decreases – constant criticism makes people feel surrounded by losers.
• Isolation increases – people retreat to their own corners.
• Focus turns inward – people feel self-absorbed and lose sight of the bigger picture.
• Rifts widen and inequities grow – few stars become privileged elite.
• Aspirations diminish – people stop believing progress is possible.
• Initiative decreases – people become paralysed by anxiety.
• Negativity spreads – pervasive negativity fuels further decline.
The good news, according to Moss Kanter, is that these progressions are reversible. But to accomplish that takes real, not cynical and dishonest, leadership. Can you see some of that on the horizon? M

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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