Do We Really Need Leaders?

March 3, 2022 Lael Good

Every few months, a media outlet runs an article with a provocative title similar to Do We Really Need Leaders? This topic has gained new life as the pandemic continues to scatter workforces and mandate remote work. Managers seem to be superfluous as a new world takes shape.

But is it true?

In 2002, Google conducted Project Oxygen—an experiment to see what would happen if the company eliminated middle managers and became a flat organization. So what happened? Employees were directionless and had no support in times of need. In fact, it was such a colossal failure that Google terminated Project Oxygen after a few short months.

One would think that Project Oxygen’s findings were so definitive, so beyond debate, that topics about whether leaders are necessary would have been put to rest. Instead, it prompted Google researchers to ask a better question: “What makes exemplary leaders?” After studying the behaviors of its best people, Google discovered the answer for this question as well.

Ten Behaviors of an Exemplary Leader

Google researchers conducted numerous interviews to determine the characteristics of exemplary leaders and came up with these ten behaviors. An exemplary leader must:  

  1. Be a good coach.
  2. Empower teams and don't micromanage.
  3. Create an inclusive team environment, showing concern for success and well-being.
  4. Be productive and results oriented.
  5. Be a good communicator—listen and share information.
  6. Have a clear vision/strategy for the team.
  7. Support career development and discuss performance.
  8. Have the expertise to advise the team.
  9. Collaborate.
  10. Be a strong decision maker.

Blanchard Breathes Project Oxygen

We’ve always known great leaders are the foundation of a successful company, and it’s even more important when people are working from home. While it’s true that people can do many of their tasks without a leader, it is the leader who creates the environment where work is done and supports the purpose, vision, and values of the organization. A leader’s job is far more than achieving results. It is about building relationships so people can achieve their results.

The skills identified by Google have been the heartbeat of our organization and learning curriculum for decades. We know when leaders exhibit these traits, they breathe life and vitality into their people and their organization.

All the skills Google characterized are important, and they are synergistic. They build upon each other. For the purposes of this blog, though, I picked three from its list to explore more deeply.

  1. Be a good coach.

The Harvard Business Review once made this penetrating insight: “The single most important managerial competency that separates highly effective managers from average ones is coaching.”

Coaching is much more than the ability to help someone problem-solve. It’s about asking people great questions so that they can solve the problem for themselves. Good coaching is also about knowing when to help problem solve and when to let the person find the answer with your support.

A good coach increases trust with their people. And mutual respect. And personal effectiveness. To be an effective leader, one must be a good coach.

  1. Support career development and discuss performance.

Leaders failing to support career development is one of the forces driving the Great Resignation. Consider how many leaders ask their people “What are your hopes for the next five years?” Having worked with hundreds of companies over the years, I can tell you that a minority of leaders ask this question.

Leaders often give career development the short shrift because they are struggling to keep up with their own day-to-day work. Fear that a high-performing employee will leave may also play a role. Leaders may think “If I bring up career development, so-and-so may want to leave my team or the organization. Then I’ll have to find someone new.” But if an organization is to have strong succession planning and build bench strength, every leader must have career development conversations.

  1. Have the expertise to advise the team.

The amount of human knowledge doubled about every 100 years until 1945, when it started to double every 25 years. It now doubles every 13 months and will double every 12 hours once the Internet of Things becomes widespread.

The world is changing so fast that one can’t remain an expert on several different subjects for long. We must rely on individual contributors. And individual technical experts must rely on each other. That’s changed the meaning of having the expertise to advise the team.

Because of this, leadership looks different. It’s impossible for a leader to know all the answers. The truth of this statement is being played out in front of us day after day.

One of my favorite Ken Blanchard quotes is ever more relevant: “No one of us is as smart as all of us.” Teams are now the vehicle for getting work done. Leaders everywhere must understand and embrace the new role of team leader. This includes creating an environment where a team can flourish and nurturing the relationships that make sure the team functions at its peak.

The Future of Work

Effective leadership doesn’t always need to be provided by a formal leader. We now see teams of leaders working together and leadership becoming a shared responsibility. This is a peek into the future of work.

The question Do we really need leaders? needs to be retired. Project Oxygen proved it. Our decades of research and work proves it. We always have—and always will—need people of vision at the helm.

The better question to ask is: What kind of leaders do we need?

About the Author

Lael Good

Lael Good is Blanchard®'s Director of Consulting Services for the EMEA region. As the lead consultant on many of Blanchard’s largest multinational client initiatives, Lael has extensive intercultural knowledge and experience in Western and Eastern Europe, Central and Latin America, Africa, China, India, and the Middle East. Her client list includes many Fortune 1000 organizations in multiple industries. Lael received her bachelor’s degree in counseling from the University of Arizona and her master’s degree in psychology from the University of Wyoming.

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