No Image Available

Maurice Duffy

Read more from Maurice Duffy

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

Groundhog Day leadership


If a Google search on leadership can find 150 million ways to improve your knowledge/skills why aren't we all masters of the art asks Maurice Duffy.

I was reading articles recently on how to become an effective leader and I came across the tips on how to improve my leadership skills. I was particularly struck by the Google search on leadership which found me a 150 million ways to improve my knowledge/skills. If there is that much advice, how come we are not masters of the art, and why is it that we get it wrong so many times?

We have role models. We have authentic leaders, we have transformational leaders, we have charismatic leaders, we have transactional leaders and even in blackswan we have true leader programmes. I ask myself regularly, as someone who teaches the art of leadership, and practices the art in my own business, can leadership be truly taught? Is there a set of skills/knowledge that once you grasp it means you can lead? My own answer is that we are always looking for fast solutions that change little and cost a lot.

Ask yourself a question: in the history of your business how much has been spent on leadership training? I will confidently predict that you are no better led today after this significant investment than you were prior to this investment. Is this because leadership cannot be taught, or leadership is being taught in the wrong way? Or perhaps we are heaping skills and knowledge, without the behaviour change and the recognition of fatal flaws, onto people who are incapable of absorbing the information or deciphering the data or implementing any actions that have sustainability? I often use the example that leadership training is like putting people into a car with no steering wheel but a lot of power, and then asking them to go really, really fast.

Trust in leadership

The topic of leadership has constantly captivated the business world and the HR community at large. This is exacerbated by the recent crises in the trust in leadership and experiences of widespread and continuous failures of leadership in business, in politics, education, and other institutions of modern society. My observations lead me to ask can we trust our leaders and did we ever trust them? Perhaps a much more important question is do our leaders trust us and will they ever? Trust is a vital ingredient in any relationship and without offering trust we cannot expect trust in return. Trust is also a process, not an event; to assume trust or just say ‘trust me’ straight away engenders a lack of trust like the snake in the film ‘The Jungle Book.’

Leadership training is like putting people into a car with no steering wheel but a lot of power, and then asking them to go really, really fast.

There have been so many programmes on leadership and this not just confined to the business world. Many of the programmes I see about leadership are largely a matter of technique or a set of skillsets that are being taught. The same old chestnuts are trotted out: delegation skills, communications skills; communication is not a skill, it is a desire - if we want people to know what’s going on we’ll find a way to tell them. And ‘listening skills’ is often about teaching people to pretend to listen, to make their eyes wider and say ‘uh huh.’ However, my view is that alongside these programmes we need to embed a sense of urgency, a sense of toughness, a true set of values and beliefs together with the personal wisdom on how to apply them appropriately.

These are tough times and we need leaders with passion, conviction, and a willingness to take charge and lead us to a better and more engaged place. I often use the example that leaders lead bullet-filled battle charges without looking back to see if the troops are following. My belief set tells me that if a leader has to confirm loyalty then they are already in trouble. The mantra that I have learnt from my many mistakes as a leader and from years of researching and teaching leaders is that leaders need to understand the difference between strategic/tactical, regulation/enforcement, trust/engagement, toughness/enablement, charisma/capability and decisiveness/execution.

Leadership is full of paradoxes. A leader who can engage whilst driving hard, achieve loyalty whilst being tough, be inspirational without being the centre of attention, be transparent whilst being in control needs to consider these and the following types of questions:

  • How can we give direction without giving directives?
  • How can we lead by serving?
  • How can we maintain authority without having control?
  • How can we set direction when we don’t know the future?
  • How can we oppose change by accepting it?
  • How can we accept change by opposing it?
  • How can a large organisation be small?
  • How can a small one be large?
  • How can we be both a system and many independent parts?

A balancing act

The role in leadership coaching is clear - and important to all employees - we can share wisdom, experience, and context. Leadership is a balancing act. It requires communicating a compelling vision, convincing others to buy into that vision, and marshalling resources and talent to make it happen. It is like a determining a magnetic north, OK we have been marching in that direction now we march in this direction, and organising our people and our processes behind that point.

Leadership is a balancing act. It requires communicating a compelling vision, convincing others to buy into that vision, and marshalling resources and talent to make it happen.

In the end our teams will support only those undertakings which they feel instinctively to be just, and leaders who are reliable/capable, trustworthy and authentic. Further, we also need leaders who are prepared to lead. I was recently with a CEO whose business was losing $70m per month and I was shocked to see him bogged down in consultation, communication, coaching rather than grabbing the issue by the horns and making brave and courageous decisions that will create the kind of breakthrough action that would eliminate inertia and create the energy of execution that the business desperately needed.

My view is that these are situations when we have to lead, have to make the difficult decisions, and begin to direct the action and orchestrate the response. These times are not as unprecedented as we call them; we have been through difficulties like these in the past.

During periods of turbulence human beings naturally focus on the moment. It's part of the fight-or-flight instinct. It is not enough to be able to manage uncertainty, we have to be able to manage through uncertainty, towards a more certain future, to lead the charge. In 55 BC when Caesar came to the UK he sailed towards land and saw Celts and Picts all along the shore waiting. He took the Holy Roman Standard, threw it over the heads of the Celts and Picts and said to his men “bring it back”. The perennial debate around whether we need an autocratic or democratic style of leadership is irrelevant; it is about what is needed at the time. When I’m lying on the operating table I know I don’t want a consensus-driven surgeon who will say “so what do we all think?” I want to hear “scalpel”!

Cause for concern

Our current leadership profile is a cause for concern. Our current leadership development programmes are a cause for concern. We as individuals are hard-wired to detect and respond to adversity. The danger is that too many leaders use tough times as an excuse to lock in on today's misery, foregoing discussion and deliberations about the future. The greater danger is that our leaders know no other route. Simply, these guys manage like there is no tomorrow. Their time horizons are about as short term as you can get. And their decisions reflect this immediacy and urgency. The future doesn’t just happen; we have to make it happen, with conviction, energy and determination. We can all spot the leaders - they’re the ones with people following them.

What we now need leaders who are driven to lead to step forward, to take control and to guide organisations through these unchartered and choppy waters.

What we now need is a whole new way to help leaders meet the new business horizon head on, programmes that prepare the mental toughness to form the challenges and the vision and operating style that engages and motivates the organisation in a trusting and authentic way.

We now need leaders who are driven to lead to step forward, to take control and to guide organisations through these unchartered and choppy waters. The challenge is that many of our models and most of our experiences are built upon traditional methodologies for a world that no longer exists, and so we drive forward using the rear view mirror to guide us. The ‘next practice’ leadership programmes need to deliver results that create a leadership ethos and capability that has toughness, entrepreneurship, chaos management, innovation and trust at its core.

Too often we love our programmes so much we do them again and again to the same people with slight variations. So we say that this manager has 15 years’ experience; no he doesn’t he has one year’s experience 15 times over. And he will continue to have that same year’s experience over and over again - Groundhog Day management. We can see the results. We witness the damage. Let’s make sure we learn the lessons.

Maurice Duffy is the CEO of global consultancy blackswan.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.


Thank you!