Change Leaders

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - 09:42

Good leaders nowadays, says Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer, Dr David Bradford, don't need to have all the answers. But a willingness to embrace change is imperative. By Isaac Wilson

Defined as a decade of political, social and cultural revolution, the '60s were synonymous with change.

The movement away from the conservative '50s first took flight as idealistic and dissatisfied children from the postwar baby boom entered their young adult and teenage years.

Not content with the status quo this generation rebelled, giving rise to civil rights, feminism, anti-Vietnam protests and hippie counterculture. In doing this, they not so much changed the world's cultural fabric as tore it up and tie-dyed it.

Nowhere was this felt more than in the US where Bob Dylan's eponymous 1963 hit, The Times They Are A-Changin', succinctly captured a movement that would bring a change in values towards education, lifestyle, laws, freedom and work.

So it's no surprise that around this time the first murmurs of the death rattle for older leadership styles could be heard.

"Leadership styles started changing back in the '60s and have been progressively changing over the past 30 years," says Dr David Bradford, Senior Lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Hearing his own friends' frequent complaints about their bosses towards the end of that decade piqued the graduate's interest in leadership, so he and a colleague decided to investigate it further.

"When we would talk with managers they would inevitably complain about their boss." However, complaining about the boss was nothing new; this favourite pastime around the water cooler has been around as long as there have been bosses.

What had Bradford and his colleague scratching their heads was the underlying reasons behind these complaints and workplace resentment, so they initiated a survey to find out why.

"We were surprised with the replies, most people didn't say 'they work me too hard', the main issue was with demotivation," says Bradford.

Their survey revealed those in leadership roles weren't challenging their staff, kept them out of the decision-making processes and were not utilising the full extent of their staff's potential.

With existing leadership skills falling by the wayside and demotivation a main contributor, Bradford and his colleague set up their own training program to reprogram struggling leaders.

This was followed by several books and the courses he now runs at Stanford where High Performance Leadership and Authentic Dialogue are taught alongside similarly-named empowering subjects.

Evolving leadership
The area of leadership, much like the business world, is constantly changing and the adaptability to manage such changes is key to achieving and maintaining successful leadership skills for tomorrow, says Bradford.

"Leadership is about producing change and providing order in a world of change. A good leader knows which direction the company is heading, how to align the staff and how to tap the potential of new recruits.

"The leader's key job is to build a strong team that has nous, is innovative and risk-taking, but is also prudent."

Pinpointing common mistakes made by leaders, Bradford lists the top ones as: thinking you know more than you do; not presenting your true self; refusing to learn from mistakes; failing to challenge yourself; not engaging the team; and trying to win a popularity contest. "Anyone who wants to lead because they want to be liked is going the wrong way about it; you have to be able to make the tough decisions, but without being Attila the Hun."

Those still clinging to the command and control style of leadership are also missing the mark, with very few exceptions. While it is generally acknowledged that the days of this leadership style may be over, Bradford is quick to point out that in some industries it still works.

"If you have a relatively simple job and you know what needs to get done, then this style of management can work."

The other exception is if the leader is always right. "If you are a very bright leader," he says, "then you might be able to get away with it. But, generally, you can't be right all the time."

Not all the answers
These days, a good leader, according to Bradford, no longer has to always be right or have all the answers.

"In the past, workplace change was relatively slow and leaders often had the answer. But the world has become faster moving, organisations are growing and dying very quickly; the average life of a Fortune 500 company is 14 years," he says.

"Nowadays, leading doesn't mean having all the answers, it's about building an environment where the answers can be found."

Leaders are often required to make decisions when they don't have all the answers, which can be difficult for those ascending the corporate ladder.

A willingness to embrace change is imperative, says Bradford. "What made them successful at a lower level may no longer work, they have to give that up and work on new strategies."

Dynamic and innovative leaders should no longer be surrounding themselves with 'yes men', says Bradford. "They build a team of people who aren't afraid to challenge them; they want people to disagree with them."

According to Bradford, the somewhat gruesome measure of a really good leader is that, if they were hit by a bus, could the company continue to go on and function without them?

"A good leader will have built a system that can exist after they've gone."