We have evolved intellectually to grasp the universe and understand the biosphere within which we live, yet we remain collectively in need of strong social structure and hierarchy. In western society we can be individually part of multiple hierarchies at the same time; work, friends, religion and family, occupying different status in each. Psychologists propose that this need for hierarchy is to do with individuals’ confidence, strength, skill, problem solving, risk-taking, and vision–survival strategies. Yet such structure has both advantage and disadvantage.
Accepting the benefits that leadership brings in organising our work and lives, is why we have been able to put people into space, and can now foresee life spans of 150 years. Charles Handy set the scene for organisation culture and how ultimately that shapes business leaders attitudes and behaviour, and how in turn, organisation culture is shaped by those leaders.
Then what ultimately makes a leader, nature or nurture? Where do our leaders get their empathy from so we choose to follow them, as leadership is hard to force acceptance of without aggressive behaviours.
Then what of talent and talent management? Assuming our business leaders have a talent for leadership, then what is the pixie dust that keeps us happy and prepared to go along with them. Is it simply engendering a feeling of security, fulfilling aspirations and self-fulfilment; or something much more complex? Possibly it’s the confidence that being part of a successful tribe brings, which is down to leadership. Yet when walking in the sunlight that forms a leader’s shadow, there is self-denial too! We suppress the reality that no one is perfect and close our eyes to things happening to other people in the workplace, ‘it always happens to someone else not me!’
In the fall-out from the UK’s banking crisis we saw that many of the top notch leaders were in practice rather lacklustre, with a few clearly not up to the job. Our leaders fed our desires and influenced us to never question so that self interest could prevail.
So if we have talented leaders, what does talent mean for them, and can we manage talent it to reduce the darker aspects of leadership behaviour?
On LinkedIn there has been a discussion running for over eight months on “How would you best describe ”Talent” in one word?”, started by Michael Mann.
For fun I got the machine out and copied every entry that had been made over those eight months, just to get an insight into how the rest of the world thinks of Talent not just me.
These details are approximate and valid on April 7th at 07:30 Central European Time (how the web world has made us more precise in some respects!).
In a marathon commentary, 148 people made 1,568 distinct comments, which in taking out links, names, references to external web sites, adverts and junk, amounted to 11,031 proper words filling 2,405 lines. Approximately one third were paragraph structured comments rather than single words or phrases. With this amount of genuine and open comment we can say its representative of how people think about talent.
In profile the results split into single words as per the question and text commentary. Apart from less then ten entries that challenged comments, all entries were expressing positive emotional sentiments. Everyone was walking in the light, optimistic, inquisitive and motivated; from every walk of business from Human Resources to Organisation Development and operations. A very broad church of backgrounds.
Yet in overall terms there were just four references to honesty and integrity as talents. Clearly pessimism was not us! Perhaps for this reason when fraud, exploitation, bullying and such occurs, it surprises us; yet we rarely design into our organisation development and leadership processes more than feather-light mechanisms to anticipate the darker side of leadership. We seem taken aback when it happens and continues to remain part, admittedly a small part, of many organisations lives.
So is there a talent for fraud? Yes, though thankfully on the margins of leadership, where a few individuals are smart enough to trade on the edges of propriety and impropriety for personal advantage. Yet it continues to amaze that some individuals seem also suicidal in their actions. For example, Raymond Levine a Canadian Federal MP allegedly defrauded Parliament for relatively tiny sums of money and chopping down a few trees at his home. In the context of the risk he took in doing so, before getting caught.
For leaders in the western world, extreme self-centrism is constrained by the colleagues around them; unless those around them become implicit co-conspirators. So why do OD and LD specialists fail in their duty to shareholders and proprietors in protecting their businesses? Could it be that they’re bosses feel like turkeys voting for Christmas, and object to having their latitude for exploitation reigned in, even if they never pursue it. More likely it’s that no senior leader likes to admit fraud happened on his or her watch, so it’s suppressed in organisation thinking. The commercial trade off between intensifying supervision costs and reputation risk, remains the key decision for an executive when handling fraud or theft.
Yet this remains a critical factor in the survival of western commerce where mis-direction and personal exploitation, as seen in the banking and finance sectors, has become as damaging to owner value as any solo fraud. Those mixed messages from politicians and some senior leaders have to change, as staff on the way up take their cue from those already at the top. Simply there is a real risk it will just get worse, not better.
Over the course of my career I’ve seen frauds and malpractice grow in scale from the petty embezzlement of pensions funds such as happened with Maxwell, via reinsurance fallings at Lloyds of London, to the virtual collapse of the international banking system. This last disaster happening because of attitudes, mostly in the UK and USA, as collective global leaders of the finance sector, that spread across the world. That London survived the crisis on the back of the British economy when compared to New York which was backed by a continent, is testament to the underlying drive of the British people. There will be a next time, its inevitable in the coming decade, lets hope it’s reigned-in and not finally catastrophic.
Internationally, we have reached a critical point in the development of shared economic activity. Simply layering on more supervision and governance, no matter how well intended by governments or joined up, is no substitute for personal moderation and effective whistle-blowing, followed by zero-tolerance action from within the workplace.
 Raymond Lavigne was found guilty of fraud and breach of trust. (REUTERS/Chris Wattie)