What is True Leadership? One CEO Weighs In.


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The U.S. is facing a leadership crisis. According to recent data, more than 77 percent of organizations in the U.S. report that leadership is lacking. Another 84 percent fear this gap will persist in the next five years. And a staggering 71 percent do not trust their leaders’ capability to take their organization to the next level.

Furthermore, 83 percent of businesses say it’s important to develop leaders at all levels, yet less than 5 percent of companies have implemented leadership development across all levels. This makes sense, given that 63 percent of millennials report they aren’t being fully developed as leaders by their employers for management positions.

But, the U.S. isn’t alone. Companies across the world are experiencing a leadership gap as well: only 11 percent of surveyed organizations reported they have a “strong” or “very strong” leadership bench – the lowest it has been in the past 10 years. In fact, the highest global average rating for leadership strength was 18 percent in 2011; it has been on the decline ever since.

These numbers paint a bleak picture for the global leadership landscape. As more and more research shows that leadership skills in the workplace can make or break an organization, businesses that fail to not only hire strong leaders, but cultivate them, will be at a significant disadvantage.

Effective Leadership in the 21st Century

Part of the reason we’re facing a leadership crisis is because of our perspective on the approach and qualities necessary for effective leadership, said Kyle Sidles, Co-founder and CEO of Minecheck.

“Traditionally, the idea of attaining leadership so that you can sit back and do nothing while you tell other people what to do is pretty prevalent in what we see today,” he said. “But that’s not what true leadership is, or should be. True leadership is about leading by example, treating other people the way that you would want to be treated by lifting people up when they’re down.”

Indeed, Sidles believes one of the marks of great leadership is the ability to tap into our humanity to genuinely care for and help others. An effective leader is someone who is guided by a strong moral and ethical compass that looks out for fellow human beings.

“Leadership is not about stepping on other people to reach the top, or chasing after success at the expense of others,” he said. “I don’t think success is measured by dollars, I think success is measured by how the actions in your life impact others. The more people you can help and the more people you can lift up, the more successful you are.”

Sidles’ beliefs are bolstered by a growing body of research showing that the expression of empathy is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership effectiveness tool in today’s global market. When leaders put themselves in their employees’ shoes, it’s been shown to boost workplace morale, team performance and productivity.

Sidles also notes the importance of honesty, trustworthiness and personal accountability. “Effective leadership is doing what you say you’re going to do and holding yourself accountable,” he said. “These are the things that we see missing quite often.”

Indeed, a 2020 survey from McKinsey revealed that a staggering 76 percent of employees describe their bosses as “toxic” and that they would trust someone they don’t know more than their superiors. Another 75 percent report that their immediate superior is the most stressful part of their job. And 65 percent of employees would rather have a new manager than a pay rise.

The impact of poor leadership can be disastrous. Gallup estimates that a lack of leadership capability costs U.S. corporations between $960 billion and $1.2 trillion per year (up from $550 billion in 2016); globally, the cost of poor management approaches $7 trillion – or 9 percent to 10 percent of the world's GDP.

Furthermore, companies that support the traditional power-hungry, lead-by-force approach have lower scores on employee experience, engagement, work, and workplace culture. They also have a decrease in odds of growing revenue and increased odds of laying off employees.

Re-examining Our Values and Priorities

Part of our leadership crisis stems from a lack of clarity around values, explained Sidles. We’ve been told that money, power, and prestige bring happiness and success, when in reality, these things fail to provide the fulfillment we thought they would.

“For whatever reason, our society typically looks at the stars, the celebrities, the famous and says ‘I want that life, I wish I had that,” he said. “But we’re admiring those people for the wrong reasons. They might have ‘everything’, but the ones who truly get it are those who place other people equal to or above themselves.”

Sidles himself speaks from personal experience. “I went through a time where I was very money-driven and I wanted to make all the money I could,” he said. “And I did. But, at the same time I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is not as enjoyable as I thought it was going to be. Where is the happiness that I thought would come with all this?’”

Over time, Sidles has come to reevaluate what is important to him, and he encourages us to do the same. “Money is important and obviously people need to make a living, but the problem is when we get so hung up on it,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have plenty of money that are not happy. And unfortunately, I’ve found that more often than not, the more money people have, the more they seem to value their money and the less they seem to value their morals and actually being there for their fellow humans.”

Leading the Way

In the midst of a crisis, sometimes one of the best things we can do is to go back to the basics. Our leadership crisis is no different. “I think that reevaluating where to place our priorities would be a good place for everybody to start,” said Sidles. “It’s important to get back to the little things and the things that are truly important, like family, friends and community.”

Indeed, a growing amount of research shows that connection, encouragement, and mentoring are largely what people in today’s workforce are looking for. Studies indicate that employees are no longer willing to pay the price of abuse, humiliation or burnout to climb the corporate ladder. Instead, they’re seeking a supportive work environment where empathy, support, and compassion are the norm.

According to a survey, greater emphasis should be placed on a number of “soft skills”, such as empathy, humility, self-awareness, and the ability to listen. A good leader should also be appreciative of his followers, as over 35 percent of employees cited their need for more recognition from their superiors. Simply put, leaders should demonstrate care for the human being behind a company, business, or organization.

“Our goal should be to help other people and if you get the success you’re looking for at the same time then that to me is true success,” said Sidles. “It’s hard enough to try to get through some of the stuff that we have to get through in life, but then to try to hold other people up too, that’s the characterization of a true leader.”

Research confirms the effectiveness of this type of leadership approach, finding that those who use mentoring, connection, and employee recognition inspire 86 percent more great work.

Teams with leaders who do this well have members with a 284 percent increase in feeling like the employee belongs to the organization, a 33 percent increase in engagement, a 41 percent increase in likelihood to stay, and 88 percent increase in a sense of well-being. These results, in turn, often drive productivity and lead to a more profitable bottom line.

Sidles also notes that leadership needs today are far broader and deeper than merely developing the next CEO or even building the C-suite pipeline.

“Leadership is something that happens at a small group level all the way to large groups,” he said. “In reality, parents are leaders. Everybody who has any bit of influence in any type of organization is a leader. If you’re a manager, you’re a leader. If you’re an owner of a small business that has 5 employees, you’re a leader.”

While the U.S. – and the world – has a long way to go in meeting the will of the workforce, Sidles is hopeful that the tide will begin to turn, particularly as organizations realize that their leadership approach is not only outdated, but unsustainable.

“I’m hopeful that this is a temporary period of time and that we’ll transition into a model that’s a bit better for everybody,” he said. “It’s going to take time because essentially people need to unlearn how to be managers and learn, or relearn, how to be a human being.”