Epifini / Insights / Leadership & Visibility

Leadership Fails When There Is No Visibility

We too often only acknowledge the importance of leadership through its impact when it goes wrong.

When leadership goes wrong, the ramifications can be vast. The damage caused has real and tangible fallout that impacts profits, reputation, employees, their families — and even our society. This is why in most cases, business leadership seems to get most media attention  when something fails.

When the leadership is working, we generally see or hear little about it. We don’t sit there analysing every move. The successful leader often presides quietly. Even when a company achieves a successful IPO or wins a major contract, people too often tend to look at company success rather than the role played by the leader.

Therefore, good leadership should not only be important to leaders themselves but to every person who is led. Arguably, we could survive without great leaders, but we definitely need more good ones.

Most political history centres on struggles to attain, maintain or usurp leadership. This presents countless examples of leadership success and failure that are so clear cut and, in many ways, repetitive. Hence, it is strange that we seem to have learned so little from them.

Long before Caesar’s encounter with Brutus, right up to the present day, leadership struggles repeat patterns … and will undoubtedly continue to do so long into the future.

Recently, we were given yet another case study, by Australian political leaders. We saw again how leadership fails and how successors never seem to live up to expectations.  Six prime ministers — seven if you count Kevin Rudd’s second stint after the Julia Gillard spill — in 11 years is testament to that failure.

But it’s difficult to believe all failed leaders were fools, who were too ignorant to protect themselves from ambush. This is patently not the case. Even the late, great, Steve Jobs was once ousted from his beloved Apple by those much less able or visionary.

However, there is no single set of behaviours, attributes (or morning rituals) that magically make a good leader. Quite clearly that wasn’t the case with leaders as diverse as Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, George Davies, or Kathryn Mishew, for example. They are/were completely different characters, considered excellent (or even great), by many. What unites them is that they all lost their position at one point. In some cases they regained it later; in others, they disappeared from public view completely. So what is the common link?

Despite what many people believe, the problem doesn’t lay in leaders’ capabilities but rather in the lack of visibility they have. Visibility of what?  Pretty much anything and everything their direct reports and peers choose not to show them.

A leader’s role, by the very nature of the way business and society is structured, isolates them from operational activities, the groundswell of public opinion, middle management and the workfloor. The higher they go, the less feedback they get. Leadership can be an isolating  business.

Moreover, when a leader makes the attempt to gain more visibility of things around them and (for example) pays a call on the operations, steps into a management meeting or even a fundraiser, hierarchy takes over and behaviours change all round.

There are those subordinates who fear for their jobs, the sycophants, the ambitious, the troublemakers and the bystanders. Each group has its own agenda and by virtue of the way hierarchies work, only the most insightful leader will be able to unpick the real narrative from the play that is presented. So, in short, the truth is concealed.

If the truth was easy to see, great leaders would be far more numerous. The lack of great leaders illustrates just how hard seeing the truth is. How else can senior ‘colleagues’ misrepresent situations,  and so many CEOs be caught completely off guard by PR disasters and corporate scandals… time after time?

The great leader has the ability to see what needs to be seen; and the wisdom and imagination to act on it. The truth can result in a single small device that changes the way we communicate and consume media in the case of Steve Jobs, right through to the emancipation of an entire people thanks to Abraham Lincoln.

Seeing the truth and acting upon it correctly can result in important change, growth, and societal advancement. So, how can we remove barriers to seeing the truth, such as hierarchy, emotions, behaviours, and hidden agendas?  Artificial Intelligence may be one answer.

AI has a significant advantage from human counterparts in one critical area: its independence from human bias. AI relies on inbound information to make an assessment — it does not believe in politics, promotion, job security or billable hours. These advantages make it a perfect vehicle for presenting an unbiased picture to leaders and shining a light on the truth where it may otherwise stay hidden.