Throughout my twenty years in leadership development, I’ve always challenged the industry’s status quo. Too often, I meet leaders who subscribe to a trend because they’ve been told it’s a magic bullet.


It’s important to consider new literature, ideas and debate. However, we shouldn’t be so diverted by the latest leadership theory that we lose sight of the fundamentals of what is important to shape a good leader.


Our commitment to enabling leaders to embrace disruption is why my team at Maximus invited controversial Stanford professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, to speak at our 2017 Fire Up The Future leadership experience. Many of his views appear on the surface to diverge from ours. However, in speaking at length to Jeffrey, I was struck by how we are more aligned than I thought.


Like Maximus, he believes our industry is failing leaders and their businesses. We explored this in depth in a recent white paper about the leadership crisis in Australia. This country lags our OECD peers for innovation, strategic orientation and employee engagement, indicating that traditional leadership development is not meeting today’s challenges.


Jeffery’s research points out that this is happening in the USA and around the globe, despite numerous research projects, speeches, conferences and reports. He suggests that some core issues are:


  • lack of industry governance and accountability.
  • too much emphasis on almost mythological success stories and not enough on reality.
  • too little focus on core management and leadership attributes that count.


I agree that leadership development needs to move beyond half-truths towards providing true insights and more realistic expectations. I have my own perspective regarding how to do this, and the characteristics that matter.


Something that resonated with me about Jeffrey’s approach was his unrelenting focus on evidence-based management, subscribing to the point of view that management decisions should be more evidence-based and leaders should keep their ‘gut and instincts’ in check. This discipline to improve the basis of decisions plays a valuable role in improving leaders’ choices and judgment. In fact, without sound judgment and complex decision-making capability, leaders are on a quick path to failure.


Interestingly, Jeffrey was not such a supporter of leaders being authentic or vulnerable. For him, seeing these as aspirational characteristics ultimately lead to unrealistic expectations, disappointment and disillusion. I see the challenge here and certainly think it comes down to judgment of when and how to show vulnerability. Over my decades of developing leaders, I have certainly seen this executed poorly as leaders try to adopt more authentic approaches and tell stories of vulnerability. If it is not real and they have not done the work to understand who they are this can be more damaging that inspiring. Helping leaders unlock and tap into their true authenticity in a way that shapes the culture takes skill and an ongoing commitment.


I think it is great that Jeffrey Pfeffer has shone a much-needed light on the leadership industry. It’s time to dig beneath the surface of commonly accepted theories and determine the leadership attributes that are truly relevant for now and the future.


In the meantime, here’s my personal take on four leadership theories that I consider to be influential and sustainable. Combined with strong management skills, they create a leader for our times: one who takes care of themselves, their teams and their organisation.


Four top leadership attributes


Purpose-led leadership is essential at a strategic and personal level. It provides employees with a reason to go above and beyond, and individual leaders with a compass for effective, ethical use of power and influence. Bill George (author of Authentic Leadership) and Bruce Avolio are pioneers in this field. More recently, Simon Sinek has built his career around helping leaders discover the ‘why’ of leadership, which is where I always start with clients.


Authenticity makes the difference between a leader whom people trust and one who is disconnected from the workforce. I’ve written before about how important authenticity is for key aspects of modern leadership, such as culture transformation, but I acknowledge that it’s possible to be too authentic. Hermina Ibarra articulated this paradox well in her piece for the Harvard Business Review.


Strategic clarity and agility is about leveraging data and insight to deliver perspective and make choices. At a strategic level this is done with and through others both inside and outside the organisation. The complexity and impact is enormous. Too many senior leaders are inwardly focused as opposed to spending time with people and customers outside the enterprise. Today’s leaders should spend significant proportions of their time in market discovering and deriving insights for the future. This enables a more agile approach to leading through change and disruption, resulting in a business that can pivot and change with the emerging needs and opportunities of the market. Agility is a well-covered future capability, yet without strategic clarity, true agility cannot flourish.


Evidence-based decision making is Jeffrey Pfeffer’s area of expertise, as explained in his books Leadership BS and Hard Fact: Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense. He argues that many business decisions are based on gut instinct, intuition or copying others, with no questioning of commonly-accepted organisational tenets. I think he has a point, given our natural human limitations.