Competence to lead an organisation requires certain skills. There are hundreds of lists of such skills on the internet, usually prepared by management consultants. We could even pick and choose between them to find the closest fit to ourselves. If I were to compile a complete list of the recommended skills, then their number would probably be in the thousands. No individual could possibly have them all. Fortunately, they can be condensed down into just five basic skills:
- experience, i.e., an understanding of the organisation, its function, and its environment;
- sound judgement and problem-solving ability;
- an ability to inspire subordinates to enthusiastically co-operate in pursuing the organisation’s goals;
- an ability to communicate those goals and ways of achieving them; and
- an ability to acquire and understand information from sub-ordinates.
There are, of course, many ways in which those skills manifest themselves in a leader. For example, the ability to inspire followers can be through confidence, humour, likeability, setting an example, and so on. However, if any one of the basic skills is absent, then mistakes are inevitable, and some may cause the organisation to fail. So, I will discuss each skill in turn, giving reasons for why they may be absent. The topic is enormous and there are many such reasons. So, I will concentrate on just a few of the most significant ones and how they can be addressed.
The main reason why leaders lack experience is poor recruitment practice. For example, the founders of charities sometimes recruit board members who are friends or family members. The latter often have no experience of the goals of the organisation or basic operating practice. Another reason is the personal contract, i.e., trading status for support. Those who support a leader can be promoted to a managerial position despite a lack of experience. Filling a leadership role can also be a simple matter of expediency, i.e., “there is no-one suitable, but we must have someone in post”. Finally, experience can be absent in those whose skills are principally the acquisition of power.
Obviously, a lack of experience betrays itself through the questions a leader asks, and the mistakes that he or she makes. However, there is, a hierarchy of knowledge in an organisation. The higher we are in a leadership hierarchy, the broader but less detailed our knowledge must be, and the more reliant we are on subordinates for any necessary detail. We cannot expect our immediate leader to know the same detail as ourselves. However, to manage effectively, he or she must grasp the basic principles of our roles.
The solution to the problem of lack of experience clearly lies in the processes of recruitment, training, and promotion. We should carefully check that candidates have the necessary experience for a role and are being truthful about it. We should also avoid the need for expedient promotions by training people for greater responsibility.
Unfortunately, senior leaders control these processes. Leaders who lean towards the personal contract will be less supportive of them than those who lean towards the social one. Ultimately, the leader at the top of the hierarchy determines the quality of leadership below him, and so, a vicious circle can form. Self-interested leadership begets self-interested leadership until the organisation ultimately fails.
Judgement and Problem Solving
A leader’s judgement and problem-solving skills can be poor or even absent. The main reasons for this are: inexperience, poor communication, decision overload, personality traits, or mental incapacity. This problem manifests itself when upper management are not making educated decisions or are making very bad decisions despite the resources available to them.
Inexperience was discussed in the previous section. Communication will be discussed in the next.
Decision overload can be avoided by delegating less critical decisions to subordinates. However, if a leader tends toward the personal contract rather than the social one, then the leader’s trust and the abilities of the subordinates may not allow this. Thus, the leader who tends toward the personal contract risks either decision overload or poor-quality decisions by subordinates.
Personality traits include indecisiveness. They can also be due to mental incapacity, extreme age, low IQ, brain tumours, etc. These problems can all be tested for. However, senior leaders again control the process. Those who tend towards the personal contract are more likely to reject testing. So, a vicious circle prevents its introduction.
The absence of an inability to inspire followers can be due to lack of experience and poor communication, as discussed in the relevant sections. There is no doubt that personality traits that inspire trust and confidence are also an important factor. But charm alone will not inspire subordinates. Experience and good decision making are also necessary.
Another factor is a lack of focus on the goals of the organisation, and the concentration of leaders on day-to-day operational activities. If this occurs, subordinates will fail to understand the goals of the organisation and will be unable to contribute to them. Furthermore, if managed in too much detail, they are less likely to take responsibility for operational activities or suggest improvements.
Finally, we are all motivated to satisfy our needs. Nothing inspires subordinates more to achieve an organisation’s goals than the promise of personal benefits. However, what has been promised must be delivered if subordinates are not to lose trust in the leader.
This section discusses the personal communication skills of leaders and the effect that this can have on an organisation. General communication within an organisation will be discussed in a future article. Good leadership communication increases morale, productivity and commitment. Poor communication has the reverse effect and, in the extreme, can lead to failure of the organisation.
The main constraint on communication is almost certainly a lack of time. This results in leadership invisibility. The solution is not to work longer hours as this impacts on the quality of decisions. Rather, it is to make time by delegating decisions and work. Leadership is a profession. It is OK to walk around and chat, providing this is mainly focussed on the organisation’s objectives.
Poor leader communication skills can also be due to a lack of transparency. That is, secrecy or a “need to know” attitude. This can result in subordinates believing that the leader has something to hide, uncertainty about the aims of the organisation, and poor decision making at lower levels in the hierarchy. So, unless there are very good reasons to the contrary, transparency will generally benefit the organisation.
A lack of mastery of language and presentation skills can lead to miscommunication, and thus, to poor decisions at subordinate level. However, this can easily be tested for during the appointment process and, if necessary, training provided.
Personality traits, such as a lack of confidence, extreme introversion or extroversion, can also hamper communication. Introverts can suffer information overload when in large groups and find it difficult to express themselves. They are more able to express themselves on a one-to-one basis where there is greater two-way communication. Extroverts, on the other hand find it difficult to take in information. They too can benefit from one-to-one communication. These difficulties can, however, be overcome through training and experience.
A lack of empathy can hinder communication. That is, the leader may not understand or may misinterpret a subordinate’s motives for saying what he does. The leader can also fail to understand the information that an effective subordinate requires. However, empathy can be developed. For example, people who spend more time with those different to themselves develop greater empathy. Reading novels also helps to foster empathy by putting us in the minds of others.
The conclusions are inescapable. Human capital must be developed if an organisation is to be successful. Organisations can fail for a multitude of reasons, but it is leaders who create the necessary conditions. The power of leaders must therefore be constrained by democratic control and the safeguards suggested above put in place. Many of these safeguards do, of course, seem idealistic. Vicious circles prevent their implementation. So, they can only be introduced progressively as opportunities arise. Are we sufficiently culturally advanced to begin doing so? Each country must make its own decision. However, those that do make a beginning are likely to be the most successful and experience least organisational failure.