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Paul Matthews

People Alchemy Ltd


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Do we have a leadership issue?


Paul Matthews thinks the solution might be right in front of us.

The question was not unusual. In fact I have heard it many times before in one form or another. This time it came from the audience after I had done a presentation to a small conference. It started as usual with a list of issues that were affecting the organisation and ended with the question, “do you think we have a leadership problem?”

Improving leadership is often seen as a panacea. The cry goes up for leadership and for leaders who will swoop in and save the day. These new leaders are expected to be like comic book superheroes with billowing capes and impossibly perfect physiques. They will put things right against all the odds, and good will triumph. So, the solution to all the problems is to run a leadership program. Clearly there is not enough leadership in the middle levels of the organisation. It is the missing ingredient that is denying us the success we deserve. A leadership programme is commissioned and run...and very little changes.

Please understand that I’m not at all knocking leadership programmes, and indeed in many cases where organisations are not doing well, the ‘leadership quotient’ is low, and is a factor in their poor performance, but in my view an even more important factor is enablement.

"A leader with no followers is simply someone walking their path alone. They are no longer a leader."

Unless people are enabled with tools, knowledge, skills, colleagues, resources, performance support and procedures that flow rather than obstruct, they will not be able to follow a leader. Creating leaders without enabling followers is doomed to failure. A leader with no followers is simply someone walking their path alone. They are no longer a leader.

So first, think about enablement. Very few organisations are completely devoid of leadership, so discover what needs to happen in order for the existing leadership to make a difference. Interestingly, when you enable people, leadership often arises spontaneously, or perhaps it was already there and simply dormant because of the conditions. In my experience, most people who go to work would rather do a good job than a poor job. Hopefully their idea of a good job is also good for the organisation; if not they might need some guidance on what good looks like. If they cannot do a good job, they get frustrated. These frustrations will give you the best clues you can get for what needs to be fixed first.

Be aware that over time people can come to tolerate the things that frustrate them. That is, they fade into the background as the ‘way things happen around here’. They become like a smell that fades unnoticed unless you leave the room and re-enter it. This can make identifying them a little tricky. If you don’t identify and fix the frustrations, you will need extraordinary leaders to motivate people sufficiently that they will push through the barriers that are causing those frustrations. And extraordinary leaders, born or made, are a rare breed; almost as rare as comic book superheroes.

On the other hand, if the barriers are low and people are enabled with what they need in order to do the good job they want to do, they will find it easy to follow a leader, even a mediocre one.

Think again. Perhaps you already have the leaders you need? Perhaps it is a follower performance support issue rather than a leadership issue?

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, as well as management development and employee performance support. He is also the author of the brand new bestseller "Informal Learning at Work: How to Boost Performance in Tough Times".  Paul blogs at - for further information please visit

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