Simon Terry

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Unlearning Leadership

Organisations spend a fortune on leadership programs to prepare their mid-career and high potential leaders for senior roles. Mostly, those programs are about unlearning the lessons learned as junior employees.

Shouting More 

Early in my career, I worked in an organisation with a strongly hierarchical command and control culture. The environment depended so much on loyalty it was feudal in nature. It was also brutal where a meeting could turn vicious unexpectedly. 

I could do loyalty but brutality was new to me. However, the consistent feedback I received working in that environment was ‘You don’t shout enough. Push harder. Get a bit mongrel.’ The prevailing lesson was that leadership was a macho, hard driving and ruthless enterprise. Anything less than pushing your own position at full bullying force was weakness. I learned to swear, to manage bullies and to push hard to survive. I didn’t realise all organisations didn’t work this way until I left. 

What Junior Leaders Learn

We arrive in the workplace ready to make a difference. We have nascent capabilities, a new found sense of agency and ambition aplenty. 
At first the workplace is a new and ambiguous place. The official position is that the culture is based in integrity, collaboration & teamwork, excellence and other noble values. Nothing works that way. Either through observation or explicit guidance we learn different rules. For most junior employees the rules become clear very quickly:

  • Do your job well without help, mistakes, or complaint
  • Follow instructions meticulously and never exceed your authority
  • Make your boss look good and cover your ass
  • Keep your head down
  • Develop your unique expertise to make yourself irreplaceable 
  • Knowledge is power
  • Get power
  • Compete ruthlessly and view everyone else as a competitor for scarce resources
  • Integrity is overrated; and
  • Many more spoken and unspoken rules 

This isn’t leadership, but it is what we come to associate with the exercise of power. These are the rules of traditional management based in command and control. None of these rules work in the digital economy. 

Unlearning Leadership

Organisations teach the wrong lessons about leadership to employees for years. No wonder mid-career and high potential leadership programs cost so much and struggle so hard to make change. These programs are often a transactional investment in change in the midst of a systemic reinforcement of the traditional model. 

We are asking people to unlearn the leadership that got them to mid-career or high potential status while everything around them suggests change is unwise. When there is a form of safety and predictability in bullying performance from automatons, why would leaders consider influence, agency, change, creativity and new opportunities
We need more than a fancy workshop to make a change in leadership behaviour in this environment. We need to redefine our organisation’s understanding of leadership entirely.  Our digital future demands more systemic change. Those frontline employees that we are teaching to be passive are our lost competitive advantage. Digital leadership would be easier if the culture posters were real and if there wasn’t so much to unlearn. 

To learn more about digital leadership, get a ticket to this panel with Anne Bartlett-Bragg and Euan Semple in Melbourne or Sydney. We will be discussing how leadership needs to change and what needs to be done to sustain change. 


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