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Phil Hayes asks how can our leaders survive and thrive under the current conditions in order to provide the ethical, focused and bold leadership we need in our organisations and wider society?

David Cameron has pledged to make Britain "the most family-friendly country in Europe". Speculation has started on whether he will set an example and take a fortnight’s paternity or a few days off from leading the country. The Prime Minister needs – in the midst of a very tough economic climate and swingeing spending cuts – to show that he is not only capable of leadership, of being tough and taking control, but that he is ‘just like the rest of us’ and an attentive father and husband to boot.

In business as in government, it is an interesting time to be a leader. Times are indeed tough. Those in work are supposed to feel lucky just to have a job, no matter how demanding or unsatisfying it is, or how much more ‘productive’ they are being asked to be. Management gets ‘de-layered’ (cut), targets get set at ever more demanding levels, and the penalties for failure can be harsh. Within this unsentimental, ‘measure everything that moves’ climate, we also seem to expect our leaders to be creative, sensitive and ethical. And woe betides them if they commit the tiniest sin: while some of our MPs proved themselves dishonest, witness the outcry over even the pettiest expenses transgression.

There are other huge challenges to leaders that lie underneath the more obvious performance imperatives. Some of these challenges are moral paradoxes. Leaders are expected to manage many tensions. They are expected to drive performance ever harder whilst creating nurturing and empowering environments. We expect them to show emotional intelligence whilst feeling harassed and even bullied by their own bosses and organisations. The good leader needs to espouse work/life balance and engage in developing the well being of their staff while being expected to be on constant duty-call themselves. They must develop ethical organisational practices at the same time as fighting for survival in a highly competitive environment. And of course, they must remain calm, confident and driven whilst being subject to disruptive change themselves.

While highly criticised and enumerated leaders like BP’s Tony Hayward hardly foster sympathy, business leaders remain human and suffer under pressure to endlessly produce the goods. Physical and emotional health often diminishes. So too does personal and collective spiritual capital: I work with many leaders who, whilst superficially conveying stoicism, are crying out for succour, meaning and fulfilment.

Many leaders are simply confused, demoralised and anxious. Fear eats the soul. Running ever faster to keep up simply exhausts people. Their families grow more distant (except in their insidious pressure to keep the goodies coming in). They become dispirited and disappointed: this was not the script they had written for themselves.

The current challenge leaders face is not just intellectual but emotional and spiritual. They need more than ever to feel emotionally connected, intellectually confident, ethically directed and physically well. We need healthy organisations that can build a better social fabric; the state of our leaders has a direct effect on the state of our society. Organisations are built by people, not the other way around, and organisations can only be ‘whole’ when the people who lead them are ‘whole’ themselves. The organisational agenda is written by its leaders who need to be operating from a place of health, optimism and purpose.

The current challenge leaders face is not just intellectual but emotional and spiritual.

Yet, the broadly liberal world of leadership development that I work in is experiencing an intense tightening of pressure to demonstrate measurable return on investment. Any development activity that focuses on individual or organisational well being rather than on ‘productive behaviour’ is increasingly seen as indulgent. This challenge knocks on to those of us who work in leadership development. I believe we need to get off the fence and start to build a new leadership vision.

We could begin by exposing the existing leadership culture of greed, fear and ego and start championing one built on generosity, courage and humility. This means we will need to become bolder in saying what we believe in, and become more prepared to offer a vision of leadership that embraces a ‘whole person, whole organisation and whole society’ perspective. Leaders need to know that there is no contradiction in leading a balanced and fulfilling life, creating organisational cultures that offer the same opportunities to employees, contributing to society and making a profit or hitting a target.

They really can have it all. There is mounting research evidence to support this, it is not just wishful thinking.  Organisations that are lead from this goal-focused but humanistic perspective attract and keep the talent, grow brand loyalty and succeed with the numbers. This virtuous cycle starts with leaders who have courage, vision, passion, healthy bodies, emotional intelligence and soul. In the current climate there is going to be a divide between the frightened cynics who stick to the ‘fear greed and ego’ game and leaders who are bold enough to change the game itself. As Einstein said, we will not solve our current problems at the same level of thinking that got us into them in the first place.


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