The Leadership Deficit—Face It, Fix It, and Flourish!

The changes wrought by technology, globalization, and generational transitions in the workforce are presenting greater and more complex challenges than any we’ve ever faced, and they are contributing to the crisis of leadership.

In today’s rough and tumble environment of rightsizing, downsizing, merging, and purging, leadership is in short supply. One need only look at the current state of our politics to see we are in the midst of a real crisis of leadership. And while we may not be able to solve the country’s problems, we can address the leadership shortcomings in our own organization. In fact, addressing the leadership deficit in a comprehensive fashion can be the spark to higher performance and, by extension, long-term and sustainable growth.

There is no doubt that effective leadership is the key to superior performance. But yesterday’s effective leader may be flailing in today’s rapidly changing environment. In fact, we often may feel as though the ground is continually moving beneath our feet. The changes wrought by technology, globalization, and generational transitions in the workforce are presenting greater and more complex challenges than any we’ve ever faced, and they are contributing to the crisis of leadership.

The survey report, The Leadership Deficit, produced by APQC and sponsored by T. H. Easter Consulting, identified four trends that are driving the leadership deficit:

  1. Current business challenges require a different leadership style.
  2. Different generations have different leadership style preferences.
  3. Organizations are underinvesting in leadership development.
  4. Leaders are resistant to changing their leadership styles.

These trends are becoming more acute as Baby Boomers retire at a rapid pace. The challenge is getting out in front of them while there is still time. And this requires a reality-based approach, acknowledging our own role in this skills gap. Thus, some hard questions must be asked:

  • Are we nimble enough to adjust our leadership style to the changing landscape?
  • Are we failing to accommodate younger employees’ preferences?
  • Have we identified and begun investing in a new generation of leaders?
  • Are we too focused on doing things “our own way” and not focused on the talent marketplace, changing social norms, and business practices?

Though these questions undoubtedly cause discomfort, they must be answered honestly to begin the work on real solutions. You cannot fix what you will not face.

Skill Gaps

The first question that must be answered is does the existing leadership style work in today’s environment? According to APQC, leaders themselves identified significant gaps between the skills they currently possess and those necessary to succeed in an environment of unpredictable events, technologic innovation, the growing importance of knowledge-based as opposed to manual work, and the increasing importance of ideas and innovation. The skills gaps include such things as strategic planning, change management, knowledge sharing, listening, and emotional intelligence. APQC’s survey participants confessed their own laser-focus on the bottom line, i.e., cost controls, results, and competitiveness, at the expense and neglect of the soft skills that are the hallmark of nimble management, creative thinking, and successful execution.

This neglect comes into sharp relief as Millennials become a greater segment of the workforce. Millennials are not Baby Boom strivers; they seek more balance with an emphasis on quality of life. Thus, a competitive, bottom-line leadership style will sound to Millennials like a different language. More importantly, this approach will not serve to motivate performance as it has in the past. For this new generation, the successful leader will be the one who listens, empathizes, and creates opportunities that meet Millennials where they are in this new age.

Leadership Development for All

Further, leadership development should not be reserved for a select few. Not surprisingly, APQC found that developing leadership capabilities in all employees is associated with a smaller leadership skills deficit. At the same time, the survey found that only 8 percent of organizations currently are doing so. Many organizations have developed a leadership competency for their executive- and director-level workforce, but forward-looking organizations can capitalize and realize a true competitive advantage by implementing a leadership competency for their entire workforce.

Real leadership development ensures that each individual employee possesses an understanding of the organization’s business drivers. This includes a working knowledge of the interdisciplinary functions of the business and, most importantly, inspiring people to achieve the organization’s goals by leveraging and supporting each individual’s vision for personal success. In this model, the employer and employee enter into a mutually beneficial relationship—the employer invests in the employee’s personal development and success through training, sponsorship, mentoring, and job rotations, and the employee, in turn, becomes invested in the company’s success through enhanced commitment to the organization and superior performance. At the same time, the organization is developing a new generation of leaders who have bought into the company’s values, ethos, and success. When employees are valued in this manner, the ROI on the organization’s investment in their development is real and measurable.

Resistance to Change

The most vexing trend may be the resistance of leaders to changing their own styles. But perhaps this is less about active resistance to change than it is a failure to recognize the nature of today’s business trends. We are in a world of constant churn, but current leaders came of age when “command-and-control” leadership was dominant. Unfortunately, this style isn’t proving to be effective in today’s economy. Reduced employee tenure, the emergence of a Millennial workforce, and an aging workforce are not trends that will bend to a leader’s will. However, strong leaders can embrace these challenges as opportunities to be exploited to the organization’s benefit.

All is not lost. Business trends are such that constant change has become the new normal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just requires nimble, responsible, and proactive leadership. If today’s leaders begin by acknowledging the reality of the business trends coming their way and their own role in riding those trends successfully, the work of implementing real solutions can begin.

Susan Brooks is head of HR Practice Management at T.H. Easter Consulting. An attorney and management consultant, Brooks has more than 20 years of experience in human resources management, recruitment strategies, and communications for businesses, nonprofit organizations, and political advocacy groups. Contact her at: or visit T.H. Easter Consulting at

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