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Are there any leaders out there?


Ruth Spellman reflects on how our managers are letting the side down.

If the political debates and post-election negotiations have taught us anything it’s that how leaders are perceived can have a dramatic impact on results. Stakeholders, whether they are the voting public, customers or employees within your organisation, are heavily influenced by the sense of direction they get from their leaders. Yet the problem, as is evident from the creation of the UK’s first hung parliament since 1974, is that there seems to be a leadership vacuum. It isn’t that there are no leaders out there, but that they are failing to build trust.

"The fact that most people are fearful about turning to their manager paints a worrying picture."

A survey of 2,000 adults questioned by One Poll for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) recently confirmed this view. It revealed that 85% of employees would rather seek help elsewhere than turn to their managers when they need guidance at work. Most people, according to the data, are either too scared of looking incompetent (30%), reluctant to bother their boss (48%), or worried that they will be judged for being unsure of what to do (20%).  In an environment where employee engagement levels are low, and where collaboration is essential if we are to foster economic recovery, this must ring alarm bells for the business, and particularly the HR, communities. 

Building the trust we need to engage employees, ensuring we develop our talent and fostering innovation to promote business growth cannot be left to chance. Instead it must be the responsibility of HR departments to demonstrate the business impact of inaction to those who control the purse strings. It must become an imperative that, to those who say that training and development is a cost, the answer is given that the cost of competence is less expensive than the cost of incompetence.

The perfect manager?

There is, of course, no amount of development that will create the ‘perfect’ manager. Such a thing does not exist and, to be honest, we are a richer society for it. Evidence exists, after all, to suggest that organisations populating themselves with a blend of leadership styles – in much the same way as they do with skill sets – are more likely to succeed.

"Building the trust we need to engage employees, ensuring we develop our talent and fostering innovation to promote business growth cannot be left to chance."

So the fact that most people are fearful about turning to their manager paints a worrying picture. The job of a leader is to guide and instruct, ensuring their teams are performing at the top of their game. The fact that they do it in a range of different styles should not be an issue. But there are some approaches that are definitely best avoided.

Think, for a moment, about the past few months. Whether stories have dominated about excessive bonuses, expense scandals or strike action, it is clear that UK management is in a bad way. From City high-flyers to political leaders, those at senior level have been named and shamed, painting an embarrassing picture of leadership across the country.

In short, it is clear that bad management is harming UK organisations. On one level, the sort of behaviour played out in the press could become major turn off for future generations of leaders. Research suggests that Generation Y is very principled; so are today’s leaders really setting an example they will want to follow?

Who wants to lead these days?

Wider research from CMI has revealed that recent recklessness in the City has led to more than a fifth of UK workers shying away from a career in management, and the traditional, somewhat stereotypical ‘suited and booted’ view of managers is putting off a further 20%. The UK workforce is struggling to find any positive management role models and this must change.

"It’s an embarrassing situation for the UK that managers are considered to have negative management styles by their employees."

Considering the critcism of managers in the media, perhaps it is not surprising that so many people are avoiding leadership roles. According to a CMI survey of 5,000 workers, around 12% of the population are put off by abrupt and aggressive celebrity managers, including Lord Alan Sugar and X-Factor’s Simon Cowell. These negative examples are damaging the reputation of UK management. Surely, then, it is time that managers took responsibility for their actions and improved.

A failure to act could be disastrous for the economy. Without a readily available supply of high-quality future managers, the UK risks facing a significant skills gap at best, or a leadership vacuum, at worst. Yes, there are plenty of formal training and development courses available which can help individuals improve their management techniques. There is also a wealth of easily accessible reading material and best practice guides, covering every aspect of management.

But management and management development needs to be relevant to appeal. Psychologists tell us that most people react, whether positively or negatively, to comparisons with others. Perhaps, then, it is up to the current crop of leaders to encourage comparisons amongst their staff.  CMI has gone some way to help make this happen, through the launch of an App at, but it really is the responsibility of those tasked with the development of our future leaders to help staff identify their own management strength and gives practical advice and guidance on how to improve any weaker areas.

It’s an embarrassing situation for the UK that managers are considered to have negative management styles by their employees. Good management leads to improved levels of employee engagement, enhances people’s working lives and adds to the bottom line; boosting productivity, retention rates and customer loyalty. If we are serious about pushing the UK towards economic recovery, businesses need to be innovative, accessible and empowering. It’s what employees need and want.

Ruth Spellman is chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, the only chartered professional body that is dedicated to management and leadership and committed to raising the performance of business by championing management. For more information, please visit
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