Business at Oxford | Leadership demands a wider focus

Business at Oxford | Leadership demands a wider focus

Today’s leaders are the first of the Industrial Age without well-established corporate structures, orthodoxies and relationships to fall back on. Globalization has been around a long time as a buzzword but is now becoming reality. Leaders are moving from a world of stable national markets, identities and politics to one with few boundaries, involving rapid change at the nexus of global corporate, political and social networks.

Outside the West, leaders have always felt the distinction between the economic,political and social to be highly artificial. The young leaders I met on the African Leadership Programme, which Oxford recently helped to set up, are much more aware of meaningful work, and are more concerned about a work-life balance.

This is only part of much broader dissatisfaction among employees. Surveys show almost two-thirds of people are dissatisfied with the way they are treated by their organizations. They believe their leaders are not providing enough clarity and stability. But, they realize the problem has to do with the scale of demands made on their leaders, and not just their personal failings.

So, what is the way forward? Is establishing a more open organizational culture the answer? The only way to deal with complexity is to encompass a lot of different points of view. Diversity is certainly important, and many more women leaders are needed to help foster diversity. But, “culture" feels like yesterday’s solution.

“Culture" has to some extent gone the way of “business process re-engineering". It is part, but not the whole, answer. Leaders today have to work much harder to achieve shared understanding among their followers.

It is also important to allow employees to make mistakes. But, while this may be acceptable in the private sector, it is far less so in the public sector. Robin Butler, the former head of the Civil Service in the UK, says civil servants get no rewards for the many things that succeed but get pilloried for the few that fail.

Take, for instance, the high-profile failure of major IT projects in recent years. So, they become risk-averse.

In the private sector, things are different. There, the position is financially cumulative: You can accept some mistakes, so long as you end up with a healthy profit.

What will tomorrow’s leadership be like? Perhaps the Internet offers a clue. So far, IT has been a two-edged sword. On the upside, it has enabled managers to manage extended supply lines, outsource certain functions, and so on. The downside, of course, has been a speed and fluidity that is terrifying, especially in global capital markets. This is where the multi-nodal network model of the Internet comes in. Leadership in the future will probably be increasingly distributed. There will be highly sophisticated systems for coordinating leadership across a network. Just as we are beginning to understand that the Internet has its own dynamics and behaviour, so we are beginning to realize networks generally are a critical form of organization that leaders must learn to master.

Unfortunately, today’s executives seem less comfortable with the demanding complexities of leadership. Leaders may become an endangered species as executives increasingly see the risk of premature burnout as too great. A recent study of 150 companies by the Conference Board of America concluded that “demands on future leaders may be so enormous that the pool of qualified leaders will shrink... as potential leaders question the goal of advancing to senior executive positions". Alarmingly, less than half the companies in the survey saw developing leaders as a high priority.

So, how can academe help? We need to be creative in tackling the intellectual challenges involved in leadership—to help leaders in operational positions to stand back and take a wider perspective and highlight philosophical ideas that might be worth revisiting. We need to help leaders to be more reflective about themselves. Participants on the leadership programmes that I have directed over the last 10 years have been highly intelligent, highly successful and very senior in their organizations. However, I have found them to be, with some exceptions, wholly unused to moving outside the classic, techno-rational managerial mindset and unable to tap into the emotional intelligence and broader frames of reference that leadership increasingly demands. We desperately need leaders—not only in business but in all areas, and at all levels of society. It is only too easy to become disproportionately absorbed in the demands of narrowly focused jobs. Leadership requires a much broader range of skills than today’s Gradgrinds in both business and government would have us believe.

Marshall Young is the director of the Oxford Strategic Leadership Programme.Send your comments to