2018: When the dark side of leadership dominated

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on December 06, 2018

The year gone by shows leaders need to adapt to an era of fake news and rapid obsolescence of skills

This year was marked by several high-profile leadership failures. Elon Musk, Elizabeth Holmes and Mark Zuckerberg-Sheryl Sandberg all showed that success is far more challenging to handle than failure. Leaders are susceptible to believing in their own infallibility. The fault may be in us, and not in the stars. We have for too long celebrated the infallible, flawless and charismatic communicator as the tell-tale signs of leadership. These are precisely what showed up as the dark side of leaders.

What derailed leadership

This year saw the dark side of leadership coming through for some of the most iconic leaders in some of the most high-profile companies in the world. The pattern is always the same. When high-profile leaders are questioned by the media, they tend to ignore or mislead the media rather than take it as a way for course correction. 2018 showed us three glaring examples of leadership derailers:

1. Elon Musk revealed his intention to take Tesla private in an extraordinary tweet. The lawmakers took him to task and Musk stepped down from the role of the Chairman in Tesla, a company that he co-founded. Tesla had posted a record quarterly loss of almost $710 million in the first quarter of 2018 — more than double the same period last year. However, following a series of probing financial questions posed by analysts, Musk decided to stop answering. He responded instead with a childish denial saying, “Boring bonehead questions are not cool. Next!”

2. Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have always stated, “We have a responsibility to protect your data — if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you.” However, their actions show that Facebook does not respect the user’s data-privacy. Facebook’s handing over user data to Cambridge Analytica followed by five days of silence by Zuckerberg-Sandberg duo before acknowledging their failure was part of a pattern.

From scandals ranging from data abuse to election interference, Zuckerberg-Sandberg have now created a history of poor judgment that they have stayed silent on until discovered. Facebook had hired communications firm Definers to discredit anti-Facebook demonstrators. Profits and growth cannot be the only gods we worship; leadership is about making ethical choices. When Fortune magazine described Sandberg’s fall from grace as a leader, it advised, “True equality means leaning in to power — and bearing the full weight of the repercussions for using it unwisely.”

3. When Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2003, she was 19. She claimed its Edison devices could test for conditions such as cancer and cholesterol with only a few drops of blood from a finger-prick, rather than taking full blood samples by needle from a vein. Theranos was valued at $9 billion and Holmes appeared on the cover of many magazines, including Fortune in 2014. Fast forward to March 2018, SEC charged Holmes with “massive fraud”. In September 2018, the firm was formally dissolved. When Wall Street Journal had first started pointing out concerns in Theranos, Holmes had responded with hostility.

In a hyper-connected world, leaders are being held up to the same high standards that they claim when they are interviewed by the media. Going forward, leadership must get evaluated on the “H-Factor” of honesty and humility rather than on bravado, charisma and narcissism that we so cherish in leaders. May be 2019 should be about a new credo for leadership.

Learn about new media

How would leaders handle fake news challenges inside organisations? How prepared would the CEO be? They can no longer leave the Marketing and PR team to handle their image outside the organisation. In a hyper-connected world, the outside world will step in and impact the world inside the organisation’s boundary.

Organisations do not hesitate to invest in any technology that promises to improve their revenue stream. When it comes to improving employee experiences, they remain painfully Neanderthal. It is incredible how many companies even today do not allow access to sites like YouTube, LinkedIn and shopping sites at work. The leaders forget that every employee armed with a mobile phone and the world’s cheapest data packages is not dependent on the company’s network for access. Organisations can now leverage the new media to redesign the world of work.

Start thinking content consumption

Organisations are faced with the daunting task of reskilling and upskilling employees. This means they need to build content that will help upskill the workforce. Learning content has to be not just relevant but also engaging and interesting. Most corporate content is boring and does not garner any attention from the employees. Leaders keep flooding them with long emails and wonder why the employees do not read them. If corporates looked at the media consumption habits of employees and then reworked their learning content and daily communication, they could really heighten the engagement at work.

Start thinking socialisation

Netflix uses “taste clusters” to group users who share common taste in movie genres. The taste clusters are unique and help Netflix create user engagement using qualitative aspects that are proprietary. The same approach can be used by organisations to build their talent acquisition strategy. The equivalent of taste-clusters could be in finding the common entertainment options where top talent spends their discretionary time.

These can provide an opportunity to attract and engage not just the employees (or possible hires) but also experts who are gig workers. Socialisation patterns can be a great way to engage people.

The new definition of careers

Rapid obsolescence of skills is paving the way for new patterns in employment. Changing jobs was the preferred model for adding challenge to one’s career in the past. Today people take breaks from employment and chase their hobbies and passion. Making that possible inside the organisation can help retain talent even when they are not being employed in the roles for which they were hired. Talent does not see itself as belonging to any specific sector or role.

Organisations need to adopt a boundary-less view of talent. This year has seen an increasing number of experts joining the gig economy. It is an opportunity for the organisations to create a talent strategy that actively builds in gig workers.

The new possibilities

As technology creates new possibilities, organisations will need to adapt. Will employers view gene-editing in the same way as they view hospitalisation? Will organisations understand the enormous possibilities of building co-working spaces where employees can come together at will to innovate on projects beyond what they are mandated to do? Can organisations think of company paid-transport as a space to learn new skills while commuting? That may mean equipping the buses with Wi-Fi and a screen for watching content. Could employees try out a new role they are keen on by using AR/VR just the way consumers try out furniture through apps to see how it will look in their home?

The possibilities are endless. It is time to bring the outside world into organisations. The apps and choices that people have outside need to be made available to employees.

Abhijit Bhaduri is a talent management expert, a leadership coach and the author of Digital Tsunami

Published on December 05, 2018

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