Redefining Leadership Performance

Organizations everywhere are underperforming. People are burning out, leaving, frustrated, certainly not bringing their best to work. Endless unproductive meetings, busyness. Transformations failing, change not sticking. 

Work is not working. 

Much of this has to do with how we’re leading and systematically flourishing bureaucracy. According to research published in Forbes 2018, 89% of leaders believe that people leave for money, and only 12% actually do (despite whatever they’re saying in exit interviews). In addition, 2021 McKinsey research shows that people leave because they do not feel valued and can’t grow. 

This speaks to leadership performance, or rather leadership underperformance. Maybe we’re not actually measuring and creating “leadership performance”? 

Most organizations still measure leadership performance based on some achievement of results, checking projects off the list and perhaps a few qualitative indicators like communication, strategic thinking, results orientation, business acumen. Leaders are expected to be “good”, to “know the way”, to “show the way”. But in this day and age of constant change, drive for innovation, incredible complexity, are these really measures of leadership performance? Is this even possible? Not really. 

Perhaps even more troubling is when companies seek to scale themselves, they slip into this widely accepted dogma of performance and “how things should be”. This is not surprising because it’s virtually all we’ve seen since the 1800’s when management was invented. We still employ many of these pioneered practices with minor tweaks, such as performance management based in the 1790’s / 1800’s to monitor performance of cotton mill workers. Perhaps these ways worked at the start of the industrial revolution, but the world has changed in a major way. And what it means to lead, and perform as a leader has to change too. 

There is so much evidence to support that what we’re doing and how we’re showing up is not serving us: Burnout, turnover, results, engagement, frustration, the list goes on and on. 

So what could we do instead? What IS leadership performance anyway? 

What if leadership performance was redefined as: creating the environment for success (org results), where people can bring their best (perform), thrive (be healthy), and actually want to work (engagement). 

Is the function of the leader not to enable the very best team performance? Then their own performance definition, measures, focus and actions should reflect that. Not “Driving” the team, or “demanding” or “holding accountable”, but actually Leading. To create the environment for others to perform, to actually lead, takes a more complex and deeper skill set, and therefore a more developed human being. 

Imagine if we actually measured leadership and promoted based on leadership performance as redefined above. We would see things like: 

  • Engagement, not as “bullshit happiness meetings” but as people being truly engaged at work and creating value, bringing their best to work 
  • Delivery, quality, speed, agility, distributed decision-making, real change 
  • Talent attraction by being a magnet where people want to work 
  • Incredible exponential results, problem solving and innovation everywhere 
  • Steadiness, focus, clarity and cohesion all toward the same goal

Where leaders create an environment of shared ownership where people have agency and are accountable, they bring their superpowers to create value for the organization and the world. It IS possible, we’ve seen it and we’ve done it. 

It is a leader’s role to enable the environment for performance, to enable people. That IS the job. 

More to come on this topic with useful tips and actions. 

PS… Additional radical idea for another day: what if leadership wasn’t reserved for the few with special titles? Stay tuned for this in another article.

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