I was having a great conversation the other evening with a friend who is also my resident cynic. Growing up in the Midwest in a Latvian community (if you are unfamiliar with Latvia it is/was an Eastern European country dominated by the USSR among others) she has a natural distrust for conventional authority, corporate leaders anything else reeking of capricious (as defined by her) authority.

We were discussing as we often do the concepts of organizational structure, power dynamics, and the relationship between employers and employed.

We both agree that most of what we refer to as leadership today isn’t and that most of the models don’t reinforce an appropriate balance between shareholder and stakeholder interests.

What took me a bit off guard was when she expressed the idea that human resources professionals are the protectors of the faith, charged with maintaining the current models.

I found this interesting on a couple of levels.

First, as a former HR executive I guess I always saw my role and developing and implementing systems to bridge the goals of organizations and the talent we needed to execute our business decisions. I saw my role as a facilitator, teacher, and coach; not as enforcer.

Second, I realized she might not be that far off. Unfortunately if you speak with most HR professionals they will tell you the most important role they play in their organization is compliance with all of the state and Federal laws that apply to employment. This is true even though both human resources and operating executives cite the attraction and retention of talent necessary to operate their business as one of the top issues facing them.

A survey I recently read about in SHRM’s Human Resources magazine showed that in almost every key area like belief in the organizations loyalty to them, investment in their personal development and future, and trust in senior and middle management that those numbers had deteriorated from between 10 and almost 20% between 1999 and 2009. All you have to do is read any of the many studies and surveys on employee engagement to recognize those numbers haven’t gotten better in the last four years.

I shared with my friend that I believe that much of the current issue began when the vast majority of organizations became enamored with the concept of scientific management. Created by Frederick W Taylor, this is the idea that managers manage and people do. Tasks should be simplified and broken down into steps that could optimize simplicity and efficiency. For management the benefit is that this simplification means lower skills and therefore lower compensation and competition for talent.

Employees bought into this model to an extent, they surrendered their personal competency in return for security. If you complied with your employer’s expectations they would in return provide a security blanket in terms of wages, health care, and retirement benefits. This was the beginning of both employer and employed seeing people not as talent, but as human capital.

Because we saw them as human capital when margins began being threatened by international competition and the application of technology we chose to explore solutions like outsourcing, downsizing and offshoring rather than collaboration.

Leadership skills are still considered to be technical competencies rather than focused on interpersonal relationships and the ability to identify, acquire, develop and deploy talent. The “leadership” models we still largely focus on today are doing things to people rather than with people. We still call things like emotional intelligence, empathy, and communications as soft skills.

So as Dr. Phil says- “how is that working for us?” My answer is not great.

Between employee turnover and presenteeism the U.S. economy loses over $5.2 trillion annually. We can tie another couple of hundred billion to the direct and indirect effects of work related stress and other conditions.

We spend more money on delivering health care by a 40% margin (17% of our Gross Domestic Product), yet the outcomes we generate are in the middle of the pack at best.
It is amusing to me at times that there is a portion of the populations that vilifies our current President as being the worst ever, yet the stock market continues to set and break new records on a recurring basis. The down side is that financial success is not trickling down; we still have unacceptable rates of unemployment.

Obamacare continues to be a political hot potato. I have issues with it as well. My biggest concern is that there is very little in the current model to both educate and reinforce the role of the consumer/patient in the health care equation. 60% of health care issuers are directly attributable to life style issues and controllable by individuals. We need to manage health not health care delivery.

One of the issues I see frequently is that somehow we have created a paradigm where we perceive leadership, position, and power to be interchangeable. In my mind they are not.
Leadership in my mind is purely relational. It must be earned and given, not taken. I can appoint you boss and give you power, but only the people who invest their trust in you and agree to follow you can make you a leader.

That is a fallacy we still teach in our business schools - position equals leadership. Competency equals leadership.

I also don’t buy into the notion that leaders are exclusively born rather than taught or developed. I agree that some few have innate leadership capabilities that can be even further developed, but I don’t think that excludes everybody else.

To get there you have to embrace some key concepts-

  • Leadership is a role not a position
  • eadership is relational not transactional
  • Competencies form some of the foundations of effective leadership, but by themselves will never create leaders.
  • We manage and lead people and talent, not human capital or assets.
  • Every person has a significant dimension and accountability for self- leadership.

I really enjoy fable style stories so I very much appreciated Mark Miller’s new book The Heart of Leadership.

He used the analogy of an iceberg to describe what really makes up leadership- the 10% of leadership that is above the waterline is leadership skills or competencies; the much more important 90% of truly effective leadership is your leadership character.

Most people pursue leadership positions because they want something- additional power, status, rewards, etc. The problem with that is that it is transactional- what is in it for your follower?

You don’t want to be a leader; you want the perquisites that come with a leadership role.

Although I appreciate Covey’s idea of servant leadership, I see servant leadership in terms of service to an idea or a cause rather than individuals.

Leadership like culture can look very different in different cultures. The key is that the social contract exists between leader and led. It has to be a mutual commitment.

Today less than 30% of American workers describe themselves as highly engaged. Engagement isn’t about morale, it is about alignment. Engaged employees and engaged organizations outperform their colleagues in every key performance metric.
Engagement isn’t a program or a survey it is a culture and a mutually acceptable social contract.

So to go full circle- I don’t think it is HR whose responsibility it is to create or safeguard the new leadership models we need, but if it is we are going to get there by being experts in compliance, pursuing advanced certifications in our craft or applying concepts like lean, six sigma and others without seeing those as tactics added to a framework and foundation of trust and alignment.

What do you think…?


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