Leadership - What does it really mean and how important is it?Some insights and opinions from a HR perspective...

A number of years ago I worked for a multinational. I was at mid management level, a company that has since closed its doors making more than 200 people redundant.  During my time there, I started hearing the word 'leadership' being tossed around by the senior management team. The word 'Leadership' started to appear in memos and in open addresses to employees but to me, it was just another business buzz word or phrase like bottom line, top line, add value, game changer, Linear thinker, thinking outside the box, to name but a few.  It didn't mean anything.

By the time I learned what Leadership actually meant I was able to recognise that there was absolutely no hint of it in this company.

The management of this organisation were autocratic and did not share knowledge with you in case it made you think you were somehow important. They didn't want anyone getting too big for their boots. It was almost like they wanted to suppress you and at the same time they wanted you to be great at your job. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen if people grew confident and capable and inspired. Perhaps they feared that they would somehow be exposed for being average.  

There was no succession plan in place. No one was ever promoted. In fact, when they needed senior people, they were hired in and trained up by their subordinates - some of whom would have been quite capable of doing that job with minimal training. Often the subordinates carried these individuals until they, in most cases left or were let go for failure to meet expectations.

Who was at fault here ? The people running the company were hiring people like themselves, people with an autocratic approach to convey orders and produce reports.  When they did promote from within, which was very rare, they promoted someone who had been good at their job and wanted more money so they promoted them rather than loose them. The problem with this is that being good at your job does not make you a good manager ,and typically these individuals were not provided with Management skill training.

The organisation was a combination of 4 indigenous Irish companies bought by a US Global player and merged together. It consisted of a high number of long serving, loyal employees who possessed a huge amount of experience and knowledge.

The company was successful enough for a while but with all the talent that existed, the company could have been 3 / 4 times more successful and possibly even be a leader in the market today.

When you ask people why their businesses failed, they will always say one of three things, either;

  • We didn't have the capital to invest
  • We couldn't get the right people / talent
  • The market was very bad at the time

Well after being acquired by a global giant, capital was not the issue, the market was very strong and they had the best people in the business with a wealth of experience and knowledge of the industry. So how did it all go so terribly wrong?

They had managers but no leaders and so a lack of vision, mission or purpose.    Management were operating under the perception that if it worked in the past then it will continue to work and were always reluctant to consider changing tactics. Customers’ needs were changing and they were staying stagnant. As a result, there were more and more issues arising and it became more and more about troubleshooting than anything else.

The occasional chatter about Leadership and team focus whittled away and we operated in a place of chaos, a place of uncertainty and insecurity. The staff lost trust in their Managers and they felt unsupported and became disengaged. This made for the downward spiral that was to ensue.

All of the wonderful people drifted away over the years. Their needs were not being met, they had no purpose. Sure; they knew what to do and how to do it but that was not enough.

Maslow's Human Needs theory tells us that we need : 

Well let's have a look at what needs were being met for the employees in question:

Self-Actualisation Not encouraged to improve procedure or policy for long term.  No looking ahead just reacting in the moment.  No opportunity for growth / development
Self-Esteem Constantly facing & resolving problems.  No understanding of organisation / department objectives except to keep customer complaints at bay.  No real purpose.  Opinion or ideas not encouraged.
Love / Belonging Not Achieved: Kept in the dark, treated like a number.  Environment fostered an everyone for themselves attitude.  No sense of belonging
Safety & Security Threatened - Never sure of what to expect or if their performance was good enough.  Unsure whether they could continue to survive in this environment.
Physiological Needs At the very least people did not sleep well on Sunday nights!


Employees were following senior staff because they had to, to protect their job, not because they wanted to or because they believed in what management were doing. 

This is what happens when there is poor leadership. 

Great leaders hire strong people with skills that compliment their own, they know what to do, how to do it and most importantly why they do it. Great Leaders share this knowledge with their teams so that they too can understand the purpose of the organisation and can subsequently align their own purpose with that of the company's.

Great Leaders do not operate from a comfort zone. They are ready to let go of what may have worked in the past and recognise that moving forward is about seeing around corners in order to shape the future of the business and knowing that he/she needs a diverse network of talent to do it.  A network that they will bring along with them. Leading from the front.

They leave their egos at home, focusing on their team and how to keep it functioning as a well oiled machine. The skills of top performing leaders include productivity, self-management, Integrity, Loyalty, communication, inclusion, empowering motivating others, living the values.

A Leader knows what their team capabilities and limitations and makes sure individuals are playing to their strengths.

There are 5 levels of leadership: 

  1. Positional Leadership - People follow you because you are in a position of authority.
  2. Relational Leadership - They want to follow you because you have established a relationship.
  3. Production Leadership - People follow you because they admire what you do for the company.
  4. People Development - People follow you because they appreciate what you do for them.
  5. Pinnacle Leadership - Now they follow you because of what you represent overall. 

Which stage are you at?  Which leader are you most likely to follow?

Think about how well you would perform for a leader at level 1 compared to how you would thrive for a Leader at level 4 or 5.

SO How do I become a great ‘level 5’ leader?

  • Hire the right people
  • Build honest relationships with them, Breed trust within the relationships
  • Acknowledge the skills and expertise that each individual brings and encourage use of those skill
  • Empower your people with knowledge and resources
  • Support encourage them to be creative and find solutions
  • Allow them to make mistakes - Do not instil fear of failure, encourage it
  • Be prepared to be hands on, lead from the front
  • Encourage input from and Listen to your team, share information and thoughts without judgement
  • Be flexible ready to change along with the needs of the customer or in line with market changes
  • Stay committed to your people and understand what drives them
  • Develop people, provide them with purpose and growth opportunities

Remember, People should be Lead not managed

Article submitted by Una Murray ,HR Consultant,  P.C.H.R.