Listen to the intro to my upcoming book
Several years ago, I spent eight months in an executive development program offered through a prominent business school in Toronto. I was in a cohort of about 30 participants from several Ontario teaching hospitals, most were leaders in medicine, nursing, finance and IT, and more than half were women.
At the time, I was a director in one of these hospitals, leading a small team of professional facilitators, coaches and leadership development specialists in my role as Director of Organizational Development (OD). The field of OD concerns itself primarily with creating the clarity and the culture for people to work effectively towards strategic goals, and through this academic program, I was keen to build on my skills, knowledge and experience towards a healthy and productive work environment at my hospital.
Everyone on the school’s faculty was either an academic or a former business leader, and all were men. Most sessions were lectures followed by a question-and-answer period, and a few were reviews of case studies as we sat in small teams. There was also a group project component.
I recall one session in particular where we watched a segment from Henry V, a film starring British actor Kenneth Branaugh. Following the clip, the class was taken through the strategy employed by the king on how to win a war, which included a map of the battle of Agincourt drawn on a flipchart by the lecturer, and Henry V’s motivational speech in a forest to inspire each soldier’s sacrifice for king and country. Branaugh is an exceptional actor, and both the film clip and the session were entertaining, though I struggled to make the connection between what we watched and how this related to leading teams in healthcare settings.
In another session, we spent a half-day hearing how Jack Welch aligned his leaders to a common purpose through his GE corporate university, one of the first of such academies. Apparently, Welch would fly to the Crotonville location just north of New York City in his private helicopter to launch each new program, circling the campus before landing to ensure everyone knew he was arriving. Once in the classroom, he would share with the newest crop of high performers his ethos of firing the bottom 10% of the company’s leadership team every year, in a process described by some as ‘rank and yank.’ This, we were told by our lecturer, was how to create a culture of excellence.
Thousands upon thousands of programs similar to the one I participated in exist around the world. In April 2020, respected business publication Training Industry estimated that globally, $370 billion USD is spent on developing leaders. Whether in-class or online, these programs and courses claim to make leaders better communicators, coaches, visionaries, strategists, influencers, empathizers, diversity-promoters, tacticians, decision-makers and diplomats.
For those who don’t have time or money to attend a program, searching online for the terms leadership, leadership tips, leadership blogs, or leadership attributes, characteristics or traits brings up thousands of results. Searches for “transformational leadership,” “authentic leadership,” “compassionate leadership” or any other leadership descriptor bring up even more. It is highly likely that all in, hundreds of thousands of results will return. Academics, coaches, former CEOs, military veterans, entrepreneurs, celebrities, HR specialists, psychologists, astronauts and animal trainers have put fingers to keyboards, and offered advice, methods, frameworks, steps, assessments, solutions and all manner of tips, pointers and guidance - most of it well intentioned - to counsel everyone from the newly-promoted to the seasoned trailblazers.
If we look at the data collected by Gallup, an American analytics and advisory company based in Washington, D.C., the levels of employee engagement across 142 countries is a paltry 13%, with 63% considered not engaged and the remaining 24% actively disengaged.
Let's look at a Canadian study: close to three-quarters of respondents stated their work experience impacted their mental health, with even more reporting mental health issues as the primary reason for missing work, and this is before the COVID epidemic. In the US, 80% of survey respondents said they are stressed about work resulting in lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating, poor coping habits (such as over-eating and drinking alcohol), forgetfulness and decreased contact with friends and family.
And finally, a study by the American Psychological Association reported 75% of Americans say their boss is the most stressful part of their workday. In this, they are talking about everyone from shift supervisors to CEOs who belittle and freeze out employees, deliver veiled threats, express overt and covert racism, ageism and sexism, behave inconsistently, display indifference and apathy, play favourites, perform incompetently, hide in their offices shielded by gate-keeping administrative staff, and generally, act in ways that keep employees on edge, making them spend more time managing up than making a contribution.
Putting all this together one might wonder, after decade upon decade of leadership development programs, coaching, engagement workshops, mentorship matching initiatives, training on performance conversations, consciousness-raising workshops on our inherent biases and bestselling-after-bestselling how-to-be-a-leader book lining airport bookstore shelves, why do so many employees report being unhappy, underutilized, numb, burnt-out, silently obedient and deeply unfulfilled at work? What is it about our organizations—and specifically the leaders who run them, leaders ostensibly we invest so heavily in training—that results in such a shocking prevalence of employee disengagement, apathy and distress?
Given the time and money invested over decades, why do so many of us have stories about reporting to insecure, thoughtless, indifferent, biased, cowardly, unsympathetic, two-faced, pass-the-buck, self-absorbed, incompetent (and dare I say it) shitty bosses across every industry?