Leadership

“Leadership is the most studied and least understood.”

Leadership is the most studied and least understood concept in organizations. We can all differentiate “good” from “bad” leadership, but this is more often after the fact. We seem to revel in the downfall of so many CEOs, especially on Wall Street, and attribute their failures to hubris and greed.

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Consider the resignation of Chris Spence, former Director of the Toronto District School Board, for serial plagiarism, the cheating and deception by Lance Armstrong, not to mention his creepy confession on Oprah, the corporate bribes paid to African dictators by Canadian mining companies in the form of “signing bonuses,” the phony memoirists, the degree embellished CVs of senior leaders, the sexual peccadillos of politicians and generals, and the fake online cancer victims. Are there no trustworthy men and women left among us?

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What should we expect from leaders? At minimum we want leaders who can get things done, rally the people, motivate staff, resolve conflict, protect the public, manage finances and communicate a vision. We also want leaders who are honest, ethical, and can set an example for others. Some people would comment that leadership is all about character, but we tend to end up with “characters” in public office—flawed, vain, arrogant, self-serving and a bit dodgy.

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What do Pauline Marois, Alison Redford, and Brendan Eich have in common? These former premiers of Quebec and Alberta, and the former CEO of Mozilla (creator of the Firefox web browser), all misread their followers and were dumped.

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The recent departure of the retailer, Target, from Canada got me thinking about how little we really know about what makes companies succeed or fail. We instinctively turn to blaming the leadership, as if these otherwise clever and successful Target executives suddenly forgot how to merchandize their product. They seem to know how to do it in the U.S., to the lasting satisfaction of their Canadian cross-border customers.

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The world is awash in scandal. In international soccer we are treated to revelations of corruption and bribes at the highest level of FIFA. From international finance we learn that five of the biggest and most powerful banks colluded to price-fix the daily interest rate they charge each other (LIBOR) on nearly $1-trillion of trading assets. Rogue traders were blamed, no one went to jail, and the culprit banks have paid fines of over $6-billion without missing a beat.

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Self-Help

“Change requires both intelligence and self-awareness. We all know brilliant people who are clueless, and others who can describe their every thought and feeling but have no idea what to do about it.”

The failure of many organizations to deal directly with anger and conflict often reflects fear and ignorance; fear of making things worse, and ignorance about how to make things better. The emotional and financial fallout to employees and employers alike is staggering. Wrongful dismissal suits, supervisor intimidation, sexual harassment, stress leave, low productivity and job action all could be avoided with some foresight, planning and courage.

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Ever wonder why your New Year’s resolutions, made with such earnestness and intent on January 1, are but a distant memory 30 days later, as you idle at the drive-thru, your treadmill at home serving as a towel rack? Did you know that 99% of people who diet fail to maintain their weight loss one year later? As Mark Twain famously quipped: “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

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It is sobering to think how many people hate their jobs. According to Gallup and others, more than half the workforce is not engaged, with the bottom 20% being actively disengaged. It is amazing that any work gets down at all by the remaining one-third.

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Over 40% of short-term disability claims submitted are for depression and anxiety. One would think that employees are withering under the constant pressure to accomplish more with less, deal with angry customers, unreliable suppliers and merciless competitors. But the most common reasons cited for workplace unhappiness and stress are a bad boss and mean coworkers.

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I envy the hospital cleaner who, when asked what his job entails said, “I keep patients safe from germs.” He had the right attitude, saw the big picture, and felt connected to the enterprise of health care. How many of us wish we could feel the same about our own work?

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Talent & Career

“High Potentials are doubly-cursed. First, they doubt themselves, then they are shunned by the rest.”

As the war for talent continues in earnest — fuelled by demographic pressures of pending boomer retirement and competitive pressures — organizations are increasingly challenged to identify and quickly develop their high-potential talent.

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With nearly $2 billion in annual revenues and almost 50,000 coaches worldwide, the business of coaching is well and alive, according to a 2012 Global Coaching Study by the International Coaching Federation. But it is not without its critics.

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Employers like to say, “we hire for attitude, we train for skill.” It means that the ability to demonstrate a positive attitude, show initiative, communicate effectively, make decisions, and be accountable, is far more critical to job success than technical training alone.

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It was not too long ago that Millenials were the target of jokes and outrage. Like boorish guests at a Royal Gala, they were criticized for their dress, manners, attitude and values. They were lampooned for their workplace political naiveté, their overestimation of their abilities, their short attention spans, their craving for positive feedback, and their pursuit of work/life balance.

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Workplace Productivity

“Culture is the oxygen that allows organizations to breathe. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your strategy is, if your people are choking on toxicity and dysfunction. “

As organizations rely increasingly on virtual communication to manage and develop employees, there is a growing sense of uneasiness and confusion around accountabilities and personal responsibility. We have all retreated into our social networking hives — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs and webinars—and rarely venture out of our own virtual universes.

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The revolution has begun in two worlds: work and education. It’s transforming the way we will approach both in the years to come. Specific trends within a mix of social demographics and technological advancement are combining to create an environment where employees will experience more autonomy, entrepreneurialism and personal growth.

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The only thing more disheartening than being out of work is finally landing a position only to find that that the culture is all wrong for you, the people suck and the politics are vicious. To make matters worse, your boss is starting to look at you sideways, and you suddenly realize you are not going to make it past the probationary period. As you part ways you conclude, “It just wasn’t a good fit.” You try not to blame yourself. At least when you are out of work, you know what that feels like, and things can only get better when you find a job.

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I will never forget what the shop steward said to me on my first plant tour as a newly minted organizational psychologist. She leaned over and declared with a grim smile, “Oh, you’re here to figure out how to suck the last ounce of productivity out of us.” And so the battle lines were drawn. Not much seems to have changed in the last 30 years.

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What do we mean when we talk about organizational culture? Is it employee morale or engagement? Is it level of satisfaction or job fulfillment? Perhaps it refers to strategy and direction? Or even capable and trusting leadership?

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I suppose the Air Canada baggage handlers who Is there so little trust and tossed bags on to the tarmac from a height of 30 feet earlier this year, thought they were being “productive”. Or the Walmart managers, whose policy of locking-in their overnight workers to prevent intruders and employee theft, thought they were being “productive”.

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Three years ago I wrote a column poking fun at corporate wellness programs. I saw them as well-intentioned but poorly executed, with low participation rates and indifferent results.

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The world is awash in scandal. In international soccer we are treated to revelations of corruption and bribes at the highest level of FIFA. From international finance we learn that five of the biggest and most powerful banks colluded to price-fix the daily interest rate they charge each other (LIBOR) on nearly $1-trillion of trading assets. Rogue traders were blamed, no one went to jail, and the culprit banks have paid fines of over $6-billion without missing a beat.

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