Leaders Behind Bars: Why Leadership Freedom Is Disappearing

Leaders need courage now, more than ever, to see through their decisions.

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Leaders need courage now, more than ever, to see through their decisions.


Leaders Behind Bars: Why Leadership Freedom Is Disappearing

Leaders need courage now, more than ever, to see through their decisions.

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It’s easy to criticise leaders, after all they are accountable aren’t they? The debate around poor leadership, lack of trust in leaders, not to mention the growing numbers of people suffering with some form of mental illness or anxiety means a lot of blame is placed upon business leaders today.

The reality is, leadership today faces some very tough challenges and obstacles in the workplace.

One might be forgiven for asking the question: Are leaders today really free to lead? Are they free to form their own judgements, to make decisions from the top and to conduct themselves in a way that they believe is just and fair? Plenty would say no, in many cases.

What it means to be a leader has changed beyond all recognition over the past 30 years or so. The power and influence of social media today also means that everything is now very visible, so leaders have had to adapt to living their lives under scrutiny in a very open and transparent manner. Such openness undoubtedly invites criticism from the outside world.

One obvious example often quoted is connected to the former BP CEO, Tony Hayward, whom for most recall two things, one for the oil crisis off New Orleans and the second for the revelation that he went sailing with his son during the crisis for which he was heavily criticised.

But looking back was this right and fair? He took his son sailing on a weekend, early in the morning - should a business leader not be free to have a family life regardless?

Walking in the shadows

The real point is that many leaders today have become a withering shadow of their predecessors.  Many have backed off and are showing far less courage and strength to lead as freely as they should.

One wonders what would have happened if Hayward had responded to the criticism with “I was taking my son sailing to support him whilst I reflected on the crisis that had happened.” A tense leader is not a good leader, in times of crisis people often need space and time to think and respond.

Another question is whether openness and social media has in fact created fear and a reduction in conviction?

Take President Trump as a leader; many would agree with the counter that Trump appeals to the public that he is very open and yet he seems to lack any fear, he makes the most outrageous comments.

Many are now starting to imagine what would happen if he did somehow manage to create a more peaceful world with North Korea and Russia – this would deserve high praise but how?

He has upset the Europeans, upset the Liberals and has demonstrated (whether you like him or not) courage under fire. No one is suggesting every leader should replicate Trump, but being a true leader is about having the courage to take risks and stand up for what you believe in.

“Ask not what your country can do for you: ask what you can do for your country” – JFK

Probably an even bigger issue is that employees are almost becoming a threat to leadership and this psychology has been off the mark as it has withdrawn HR and leadership and in turn created the gap between boards and teams that has led to the awful emerging statistics around a lack of trust and lack of culture in the workplace.

Leadership has to be about the whole picture and what’s more, it’s also about sacrifice. One of the major criticisms of the public sector is that the word ‘service’ is often overused but the truth is many want the rewards of the private sector.

There is a greater need than ever for real service, for un-selfish leadership that has plagued the loss of trust in leaders and politics over the years.

It is time that people actually felt that their leaders genuinely cared for more than the stakeholders, share price and rewards. This can only come from culture itself and also what companies physically do in action for others – talk is as always, cheap.

There is a very god reason why Richard Branson and Virgin as a company has stood tall and for so long – they do brave things, they inspire, engage, are mildly outlandish at times and they openly do good things for people, charity and community.

It takes more courage to live life than go with the flow

How can we free leaders today? Courage has become a lost word. In days gone by a person with conviction was said to lead life on their own terms and this was praised.

Now this could be termed egotistical and we seem to instead discourage people from being mavericks and taking stands. Yet history tells us that the mavericks are of real importance in our world. Perhaps we need to start truly respecting those that are different?

The pointless debate on whether on not we actually need CEOs or leaders today, should be stamped out. Instead, we should be talking about how leaders can be given the freedom and the support they need and deserve.

If leaders continue to be stifled and to live under threat, teams and culture will suffer in the long term. Leaders must be free to drive successful businesses with the support of a happy, productive and loyal team.

Some very real changes need to happen in the workplace today to allow leaders to lead freely. Culture can empower leadership and it sits at the very core of every company along with visible and courageous leadership. Branson as a leader is still visible, involved and engaged in his businesses.

Leaders need to lead and not from behind bars (or a polished desk). Yes, things will go wrong, mistakes will be made and failure may well happen but that is life and without it we cannot truly succeed as leaders.

Chris Sheppardson is Founder of EP Innovates

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Leaders Behind Bars: Why Leadership Freedom Is Disappearing

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