Leadership Gone (Way) Wrong

Eight in ten corporate leaders are getting failing marks from their own colleagues, an extensive new Korn Ferry study finds. Is a new breed of ‘self-disruptive’ CEOs the answer?

These days, tens of millions of people around the world think politicians are doing a less-than-stellar job preparing their nations for the future. From U.S. government shutdowns and Brexit-related discord to discontent about the economy across Europe and election turmoil in Thailand, there are plenty of reasons why people might not think their government officials are up to the task.

But while that public sector strife is making all the headlines, it turns out that there may be an equally divisive leadership battle going on at corporations. According to a new Korn Ferry analysis only 15% of executives have what it takes be truly great leaders in the rapidly-changing business world. The firm, which analyzed more than 150,000 leadership profiles of executives worldwide, says that a majority of them can’t make decisions and take smart actions quickly enough, motivate people effectively, or build trust.

To some degree, this evolution and call for a so-called “self-disruptive” leader has been years in in the making. At some of the world’s most esteemed firms, CEOs whose legacies seemed secure were summarily tossed out of the corner office because of an inability to successfully navigate today’s challenges. But Korn Ferry’s new studies suggest the changes at the top are going to accelerate rapidly in the next few years. “For the last one hundred years, leaders have been taught that control, consistency, and closure are the principles of business leadership. But dramatic changes to the global business environment mean that this is no longer a reliable blueprint,” says Dennis Baltzley, Korn Ferry’s global solution leader for leadership development and co-author of the new report, “The Self-Disruptive Leader.”

Today’s disruptive forces in technology, globalization, demographics, and consumer behavior are exposing the limitations of legacy leadership worldwide. The push for self-driving vehicles, hundreds of millions of people in Asia expecting good healthcare services, demand for cleaner energy sources, expectation that goods be delivered instantly, and other trends have assured that no industry has been spared upheaval.

Compounding the problems are the demands from an investor class looking for profitable growth that translates into higher stock returns. Indeed, that group is already pessimistic. Two thirds of them, according to a separate Korn Ferry survey, say that today’s private-sector leadership is unfit for the future. That’s not only an American sentiment, either. Indeed, more than 80% of investors in China and Japan feel today’s leaders aren’t ready.

The new model of self-disruptive leadership builds on existing several concepts. It goes without saying that future leaders must harness the power of technology, embrace ambiguity, and motivate employees. But the model also highlights the importance of leaders who can easily create opportunities for everyone and manage innovation. “At their core, self-disruptive leaders are highly learning agile, self-aware, emotionally and socially intelligent, purpose-driven, and assured but humble,” Baltzley says.

Korn Ferry identified five dimensions that these high-performing self-disruptive leaders have in common. These leaders can anticipate, and even create, new trends. Rather than reacting to the future, they help shape it. These leaders listen rather than dictate, which helps them identify possibilities ahead of others and secure a first-mover advantage. These leaders also drive their organizations through disruption, while at the same time help others manage anxieties and stress. These leaders are fueled by purpose and can articulate compelling messages to inspire others.

The self-disruptive group also has a healthy fear of missing out. They act rapidly, and sometimes courageously, to innovate. These leaders understand that innovation isn’t done alone and can develop effective partnerships and networks. Finally, these leaders inspire trust across diverse groups of people.

No one region has a monopoly on self-disruptive leadership, but some countries are ahead of others in developing. French and German leaders, collectively, are stronger and driving results and accelerating change than their global counterparts.

But every region has at least one area that its leaders, as a group, can improve on, Baltzley says. In the United States, executives must become better and developing partnerships. In China, leaders improve their abilities to drive their organizations toward a common vision. For Japanese leaders, building trust is the biggest need.

The good news, according to the Korn Ferry analysis, is that many potential self-disruptive leaders are already working in organizations, just at levels well below the C-suite. The onus is now on the company’s current executives to develop those younger, less experienced employees. “Moving candidates around between teams and divisions will be key,” says Ilene Gochman, Korn Ferry’s global solution leader for assessment and succession. Forcing younger managers from all backgrounds to constantly adapt to meet new challenges can give them the diverse skill set and a holistic perspective needed to be self-disruptive leaders.

Click here to read the full report.