What's a Leader?

In today's flatter and leaner organizations, the ability to influence people from a wide range of cultures and geographies is much more important than title, according to new research.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013
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What defines a leader at your organization? Is it a person's title, or is it their ability to influence a wide range of people?

The latter appears to be far more important than the former, going by two recent surveys of business and HR leaders. More than half of the 1,200 executives from more than 20 countries who participated in an annual survey on leadership development by the American Management Association now consider individuals to be leaders not according to job level but by their influence and performance, while 40 percent chose as their definition of leader "anyone whose role allows them to influence a group, regardless of direct reporting relationships."

Meanwhile, more than half (56 percent) of the nearly 300 HR executives who responded to a recent Development Dimensions International survey on frontline leaders rated lack of interpersonal skills as the No. 1 reason for leadership failure.

"Effective leaders know how to work with all kinds of people, and that type of skill set will become increasingly important as we go forward," says Sandi Edwards, senior vice president for AMA Enterprise, a division of the New York-based AMA that offers training and consulting services.

In today's flatter and leaner organizations, the ability to influence people from a wide range of cultures and geographies is much more important than title, says Tacy Byham, senior vice president of leadership solutions at Pittsburgh-based DDI. "The key to success as a leader is for you to be able to leverage your personal power, as opposed to your position power -- to break down silos and lead horizontally," she says.

In today's "borderless" economy, "the mental picture of a leader as being part of the executive team or in some sort of management role is going to be outdated very soon," says Edwards. 

Notably, the majority of respondents to both surveys rated their organizations' leadership-development programs poorly. Only 40 percent of respondents to the AMA survey rated their programs as "effective," down from 51 percent in the 2012 survey. A mere 19 percent of respondents to the DDI survey said their leadership-development quality was high or very high and only 18 percent indicated they had a supply of capable employees to fill frontline leadership roles. 

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This high level of self-criticism suggests that leadership-development programs are under more scrutiny-and that's a good thing, says Edwards. 

"These programs are increasingly important and organizations are getting tougher and tougher in their evaluations of them," she says.

One aspect of these programs that HR should address is deciding who gets selected for them, says Edwards.

Progressive organizations are supplanting or even discarding the traditional way of identifying and grooming potential leaders in favor of more innovative methods, such as identifying people who tend to volunteer for task forces or come up with creative new ways of solving problems, she says. Self-selection is also becoming an increasingly important factor, she adds.

"If they raise their hand and say they want to participate, let them participate," says Edwards. "In this day and age, when engagement levels are so low, an eagerness to develop oneself further is an attribute you want to capture in your organization." 


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