Leadership should be for everyone

It has become a cliche to start a blog, a book or an essay with a phrase about the pace of change or how disruptive the world is that we are living in. 

However, we know the combination of advancing technology (automation & AI), demographic trends (we’re living longer lives and have longer careers), and changing societal values (increasingly people value meaning and flexibility in their jobs over stability in their career) is having a huge impact on organisations, and the way that we lead and manage both ourselves and people within them. 

This impact is seen on the bottom line. Corporate life expectancy has fallen from 61 years in 1958 to just 18 years today. Organisations are getting lost in a maze of what Gary Hemel calls ‘bureaucratic theatre’ at a cost of perhaps $3trillion to the global economy. And worse than that, companies today often squeeze the fun out of life. They suck our motivation and energy, and leave as many as 2 in every 3 of us feeling disengaged (and therefore not at our most creative or most productive selves.

So how as a leader, do you respond to this challenge?

A lot has been written about how ‘old models of leadership are dead’ or ‘no longer fit for purpose’ (The Disruptive Leadership Report). We agree. 

The likes of Frederick Laloux and others have suggested that this context of disruption means that there is a ‘paradigm shift’ happening in how we organise. Rather than applying the principles of command and control, telling people what to do top-down, or organising around a meritocratic hierarchy or pyramid, increasingly concepts like pluralism, empowerment and democracy are dominating management thought. That’s before we even get to the holy grail of self-organising or self-directing teams (is it just us, or do they worryingly often still have a charismatic and visionary CEO in the middle of them?).

Whilst it is perhaps no longer advisable (or fashionable?) in this disruption-filled context to be a directive, top down leader, many successful ones still are. Just look at who’s leading the likes of Amazon, Airbnb or Apple. Or take the example of Elon Musk, who recently fired off an email dictat demanding that workers spend at least 40 hours in the office or resign. So why is that?

Whilst we know that people value autonomy, when faced with uncertainty and the unknown, many of us also value and look for confidence and direction from our leaders as well. This highlights one of the many tensions which are inherent in these new concepts of leadership. It is far easier, for instance, to talk about having tolerance for failure, or having non-hierarchical teams than to actually implement such a culture and deliver results. If leading in this way was easy, companies wouldn’t spend more than $366bn a year on leadership development every year.

Despite the complexity, we believe there is a way forward. At T-minus, we’ve been learning from those leaders who have navigated disruption effectively. We’ve worked with thousands of leaders at high growth companies, and spoken with hundreds of them about how to respond to the challenge, from corporate behemoths with hundreds of thousands of employees to the startup founder that’s just received their first round of seed funding.

Often we find that the other side to these tensions is being overlooked. 

Improving our tolerance for failure, for instance, is only successful when we also have intolerance for incompetence. Similarly, when establishing a culture of experimentation, this needs to go hand in hand with rigorous discipline when implementing those experiments. 

In order to have both psychological safety and a high performance culture, leaders must be excellent communicators, being radically candid in their feedback. Teams must be encouraged and rewarded for collaborating, but individuals must still feel accountable for their actions and outcomes. Ultimately, creating a non-hierarchical organisation also requires strong leadership, to avoid falling into the norms and customs of organisations that have come before. 

The truth is, we’re constantly bombarded with advice and ideas about how to act as leaders. Whilst much of it sounds good, it’s often not always clear what this advice means in practice, or it’s not easy to implement (and deliver results!).

So we want to write a book to help bust some of the modern day leadership myths, and give a practical guide to help leaders with these ideas that are easy to talk about but much harder to do. We want to distil from all the advice and all the experiences, the specific and practical tools and strategies that are applicable for individuals in every organisation. 

You are not alone in this struggle! Whilst the specifics around the challenges you face as a leader in your organisation may be unique, from our research, the underlying tensions, and therefore the qualities of what makes great leadership are universal across organisations. 

We began to distil these qualities in our Disruptive Leadership Report, and have been helping organisations to build these qualities in their leaders in the years since. 

At T-minus, we believe that leadership is for everyone. Whether you are just starting out in your first role, or leading tens of thousands of people as CEO at a global mega-firm, there are certain ways of being and behaving that will mean you have a significant influence on others around you. Whether you are in a formal leadership position or not, there are lots of tools and ways of thinking which can help you up your game and perform at your best. 

We’re writing this in collaboration with leaders experienced in both corporate and start up environments, and who have been through the highs and lows and learnt the hard way. We’re looking for thought partners to build out our curriculum. We’re looking for stories from the field, to give us feedback on what’s worked for them and what hasn’t in order to make this real. And we’re looking for pioneers. Everyone who wants to join us on this journey in spreading this message far and wide – to truly democratise leadership.

Whilst we don’t believe it’s easy. We do believe in keeping it simple. And that leadership should be for everyone.

If you’re interested in joining us on this journey, please get in touch with ben@wearetminus.com