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Leadership Is More Than Just Efficiency And Processes

Some argue that there are many unethical, weak, vindictive, or inaccessible leaders out there and we should consider replacing them with machines. After all, isn’t leadership all about getting things done as efficiently and fairly as possible? If we improve our processes and operations, we should be able to maximize employee productivity. Right? Wouldn’t it be better if we substituted human leaders with robots? We would not only have more streamlined operations, but we probably wouldn’t have inconsistencies in employees’ behaviors too. And come to think of it, aren’t humans incapable of being ethical, available, and positive leaders?

But is that all leadership is about? Really? Just ask anyone who works for a leader and they will tell you it’s about much more than efficiency. They will also tell you that when they’ve worked for a positive, ethical, authentic leader, it was one of the most meaningful work experiences in their lives.

In the many years I’ve taught leadership and consulted at various firms, I’ve always asked employees a simple question. Tell me if they’ve ever worked for a “bad boss” or a “good boss”. The hands shoot up in the air very quickly when I ask. Everyone who mentions that they have worked for a bad boss immediately mentions a variety of issues that grate on their nerves and lead them to either “quiet quitting” or actually leaving the firm. These include: not being recognized at work, being micromanaged, being reprimanded without cause, being ignored, not getting the professional training or developmental opportunities they were promised, being led by an incompetent or inexperienced leader, or any number of other things. Hmm, I guess, robots are sounding better all of the time after all.

But wait. Those who talk about their “good bosses” (and there are always plenty who do) light up when they mention how much they were inspired by their leaders’ actions, such as how they worked in the trenches with them or showed how much they cared for them or their families, how they celebrated with them on a weekly basis, or listened to their ideas and suggestions, how they made them feel like they mattered, or how they instilled in them a higher purpose for what they were trying to accomplish. To those employees, leadership isn’t simply about improving processes or making things more efficient. It’s about a one-on-one relationship in which the leader and employee have a connection that motivates and excites the employee to a higher calling and to do and feel more than they ever expected to. By the leader’s authentic charisma or individual consideration or ways in which he or she stimulated the employee to think about creative ideas on the job, it got the employee to feel connected to them, their coworkers, to the business, and the community or society at large. In the leadership research, we talk about the impact of transformational leadership on employee motivation and performance, and about how employees perform above and beyond expectations based on the leader’s actions. So, the leader does matter, and it’s not simply about efficiency and smooth operations.

We also know there are leaders who are ethical, servant leaders who care deeply about their employees. Leaders who take that extra time to know their employees’ hobbies or families and support them during difficult times. Again, ask anyone who says they have worked for a “good boss”. They know what it means to work with someone who inspires you so much that you are willing to come to work early, stay late, help train other employees (even if this isn’t your job), and express enthusiasm for what they do each day. This connection isn’t likely to be replaced by automation or robots.

Of course, the naysayers have a point. Not everyone is a positive leader with integrity and not everyone should be in a leadership role. Not everyone wants a leadership role either. In fact, having dual-career ladders in organizations is a smart idea to enable employees to move up on the technical, professional side or on the leadership side. Also, not everyone should be the CEO of a firm. In fact, why do we have several C-suite roles such as CEOs, COOs, CFOs, CIOs, CMOs, etc? They play different roles and to do them well the right people need to be in each role. There are people who are masters at improving processes, watching costs, and cleaning up operations. There are others who are experts in pushing the firm into the future in terms of technology or marketing. And still others are strategic visionaries who are passionate about challenging their firms to move forward and are strong at building the right culture – one that recognizes and appreciates the people and their unique talents and contributions.

Some CFOs, CIOs, or COOs can move into CEO roles and be quite successful. Yet others might want to stick to their strengths rather than forcing themselves into roles they are not well suited to. Maybe once in the CEO role, they push for efficiency and streamlined processes or adopting new technologies or saving costs over taking the time needed to meet with employees or hosting gatherings to encourage team building and morale improvements. After all, lunch meetings, team-building exercises, or award ceremonies do use up valuable work time and on the surface, they don’t seem “efficient” or “productive”.

To say that we should give up on people leaders and replace them with robots is taking it a bit too far. It is exactly the human part that enables leaders to show empathy towards their employees when they are going through a tough time. And in the past few years with all of the challenges brought on by the pandemic, don’t we need a more positive, humane, civil connection at work more now than ever before? Don’t we need to share with employees why they are there, who they are working for, and how they can truly make a difference in our society? Don’t we need leaders who can role model empathy, caring, passion and joy at work? Aren’t things crazy enough with all of the incivility, anger and mental health challenges?

Let’s use automation to improve our processes, but let’s keep humans to do the things that people do best – show compassion, tolerance, gratitude, and openness to diversity. Sure we might not have a perfectly consistent way of doing things, but with effective leadership coaching and development, we can help leaders to be the type of positive, ethical and fair role models our society desperately needs today.