The Heroic Leader Has Gone – Long Live the Team

7 April 2011 Peter Hawkins

Professor Peter Hawkins believes companies should expect less from CEOs and more from collective leadership.

The myth of the perfect CEO or perfect leader is prevalent in many companies. We expect more and more from our leaders and invest such hope in their miraculous powers to turn things round, and then are quick to criticise and blame them when they do not live up to our unrealistic expectations.

I was working with the senior executive team of a leading financial company. After an exploratory round of individual meetings, I was struck by how much the views of the team were focused on what was wrong with their chief executive. There had been a number of chairmen and chief executives who had quite short tenures and there had been competition before the latest (internal) appointment. After a few months of working alongside them, I was still being lobbied in the corridor about the CEO's weaknesses. At the next meeting I said to the team: "I am fed up with you all telling me what is wrong with your chief executive. I think you are all delegating leadership upwards, and playing the game of 'waiting for the perfect chief executive'. Well I have some bad news for you: in all my years working with a great variety of organisations, I have never met a perfect chief executive. So the question for you as senior team members is: 'How are you as a team going to take responsibility for his weaknesses?'"

The world has moved beyond the time when the major challenges could be met by the great individual leader, or the complexities of transformation in companies could be solved by the heroic CEO. Human beings have created a world of such complexity, global interdependence, of continuous and fast-moving change, that leadership is beyond the scope of the individual and requires more high-performing collective-leadership teams.

So how do these global challenges manifest themselves in the world of leadership teams? Here are seven key challenges that CEOs and boards need to address collectively.

1. Manage expectations of all stakeholders

A CEO of a successful financial company told me how everyone saw him as having enormous freedom, power and choice as CEO, but his experience was that he had less freedom, power and choice now than when he was a front-line team leader. He explained how his diary was fixed for him and driven by the corporate calendar; how he was constantly at the beck and call of regulators, board members, shareholders, key customers and partner organisations; and every division and function expected a personal visit at least once a year.

With this type of pressure it is of no surprise that the average time most CEOs stay in a post is becoming shorter and shorter. A leadership team needs to respond collectively to these challenges where stakeholder expectations are managed by the whole of the team and are not the single responsibility of the CEO.

2. Run the business and transform it at the same time

Transformational leadership is the process of collectively engaging the commitment and participation of all major stakeholder groups to radical change in the context of shared endeavour, values and vision.

Stakeholder groups at a minimum include employees, customers or service users, suppliers or partners, investors or voters, regulators, the communities in which the enterprise takes place and the natural environment.

Often senior teams that are under pressure will allocate and disaggregate responsibility. The financial director will look after the investors; the HR director the employees; the sales director the customers; the compliance director the regulators, etc. This can lead to systemic and stakeholder conflict in the leadership team, between these various leaders, with a need to create integration through effective collective transformational leadership.

"Leadership is beyond the scope of the individual and requires more high-performing collective-leadership teams."

3. Increase capacity for working through systemic conflict

A senior team can have too much conflict to be effective, but it can also have too little. The level of conflict in a team should be no greater or no less than the conflict in the system they are leading and operating within. This being so, there is a need to help teams (and boards) expand their collective capacity to manage systemic conflict between different stakeholder interests.

4. Live with multiple memberships

Rarely do senior leaders or managers belong to just one team. A chief executive may be a member of the board, lead the senior executive team, and chair some of the subsidiary business boards, as well as sit on industry committees, joint ventures and working groups.

Yet psychologically most leaders struggle with multiple membership and belonging. It is easy to fall into a representational delegate role, where rather than act as a full team member you are only there to represent the views of the other team you come from and only speak when their interests are threatened or need promoting. Then one returns to the other team to represent their views. One becomes what Barry Oshry in his book Leading Systems so neatly describes as a "torn middle" – a postman, envoy or arbitrator between one team and another and belonging nowhere.

5. The world is more complex and interconnected

We live in a world where it is harder and harder to escape or get the distance necessary to stand back, reflect and see the bigger picture, which is probably one of the major factors why more and more senior leaders turn to coaches who can provide some of that protected space and outsider perspective. However, it is now even more important that the collective leadership team gets the time and coaching support to collectively stand back, reflect and transform its capacity and performance.

6. The growth of virtual working

Human beings have to rapidly develop to ways of working for which there is no blueprint. The working day is now 24/7, its activity moving to different parts of the globe as the day progresses. Teamwork is often electronic, rather than face-to-face, all of which require not just new communication skills but also new ways of developing and sustaining trust.

7. The major leadership challenges lie not in the parts but in the interconnections

"These key challenges require leadership teams to raise their collective capacity to lead together."

No longer do the main challenges lie in the people or in the parts but in the interfaces and relationships between people, teams, functions and different stakeholder needs. For too long leadership development has been addressed individually and not collectively.

We continue to look to our leaders to manage the complexity that we have collectively created. These challenges are beyond the individual leaders we continue to invest so much hope in and then blame for our disappointment.

If organisations of all shapes and sizes, local and global, commercial and not-for-profit, are going to rise to the challenge of making a contribution, they will need to become the laboratories in which we discover new forms of collective leadership.

These seven key challenges require leadership teams to raise their collective capacity to lead together and perform at more than the sum of their parts. The journey to being a high-performing leadership team can not be achieved just by personal coaching or the occasional away-day; it requires sustained team coaching either from the team leader or a trained team coach.

Leadership Team Coaching by Peter Hawkins has just been published by Kogan Page. It describes in detail how to create high-performing collective-leadership teams.