ITB: How is the role of leader changing?
Barling: What we’re seeing to a large extent be questioned and be replaced is the old command and control style of leadership. In organizations, people placed in leadership positions used to be able to order people around and I think that model is close to gone. In the old days, and the old days are not that long ago, people did things because you were the leader and you told them they had to do it. Today you’re the leader and you tell people what to do and that’s why they don’t do it. There are probably many reasons for this change – you can trace it to a growing trend in society where we simply cannot order people around. We have to gain people’s trust. You can gain extraordinary levels of trust in leadership, of respect for leadership, [but] it depends on the way leaders behave. It doesn’t depend on your formal rank or position – it simply depends on your behaviour.
ITB: How can CEOs or CIOs effect change in their organizations?
Barling: We can force people to do things – there’s no doubt we can do that. It’s probably not sustainable in the long term and it’s probably not as effective as winning over people’s trust and respect. It doesn’t mean going all soft at the knees. It doesn’t mean not making some awfully hard decisions, but those decisions are probably easier to implement if people trust you. Going back to the old days of leadership 10 or 15 years ago, it would be very difficult to find leaders who apologize. Leaders would be reluctant to do it because they would fear that they were showing weakness. More and more we’re learning that in actual fact where leaders do sincerely apologize for things gone wrong, instead of appearing weak, they appear strong. They build respect and create better relationships. These look like subtle changes but they’re incredibly meaningful changes. It adds up to a model at the larger level where we’re focusing less on the leader as hero and more on a humble model of leadership – humility as opposed to heroism.
ITB: What other skills are required today to be an effective leader?
Barling: People still need basic management skills. They still need to know how to give feedback. And I don’t say that trivially. It’s not something that comes naturally – you have to learn how to do it. But it’s not enough and leaders need to go beyond the sort of management skills that were seen as being sufficient in the past. They need to learn to elevate their employees. In the old days you were a wonderful leader if you could answer all the questions that were asked of you. But in today’s world, you’re a wonderful leader if you can help people answer all their own questions. It sounds trivial, but it’s huge. So the question is, how do you get people to do what they have to do because they want to do it? We need to go back to the basics. We need to give people a reason for what they’re doing. None of us want to think that our work has no value. We need to help people [see] how much they can do rather than just how little they can do – how competent they are, rather than how incompetent they are. When people feel trusted they’re at their very best. When people feel distrusted, be careful.
ITB: How can today’s leaders acquire or learn those skills?
Barling: I’m not sure it comes naturally to anybody. If you look at Nelson Mandela, the most obvious conclusion is that it’s in his blood. But the Mandelas of the world will tell you that’s just not the case. You’ve got to know your core beliefs and the rest of it is just extraordinary hard work – doing everything you can to ensure you make those opportunities to get your beliefs across. While some components of leadership are probably genetic, the parts that we deal with in organizations are trainable. You can train leaders.
ITB: How can leaders encourage innovation and creativity?
Barling: If you’re being controlled, people will simply do what they can to avoid risks, rather than focus on what they can do. We have to create environments in which people want to be creative. We have to create environments in which people feel safe and we have to support their initiatives. Not all of these endeavours work, so how are we going to cope with the failures? It’s always better to inspire than manage. Management means close monitoring, supervision. But inspiration can be the smallest possible action. You can inspire people through a thank you or well done.
ITB: How important is leadership to the success or failure of a project?
Barling: Leadership is obviously crucial, but we’ve got to put it into context. Leadership is not the only thing that makes for the success or failure of anything. We forget that in all human interactions, we have two-way interactions, and it turns out that it’s very likely that followers affect their leaders just as much as leaders affect their followers. So are leaders important? Absolutely. Are they just one part of a bigger piece? Absolutely.