The great British leadership deficit

We hear about financial deficits and lack of funding all the time. The high street banks are lending less and the supply and demand gap seems to be widening day after day. 

But is more money really the solution to all our economic and business problems? This week I was set thinking that perhaps we are suffering from an even greater deficit: that of leadership.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t many excellent leaders; there are. I’m only suggesting that we don’t have enough. Perhaps, even, we could never have enough excellent leaders.

Last week I was invited to a shareholders meeting where some of the minor shareholders had previously been asked to hand back all their shares at nil value. The reason? The initial business plan hadn’t worked and a core team wanted to keep going with the project, so they felt that some of the original shareholders should give up all their shares – for no return or interest in the future business.

Apart from the obvious responses – such as, “that’s theft!” – it struck me that something more serious was going on, and that was that there was a failure of leadership within the business.

Instead of admitting that the business needed to re-structure, re-focus and require further effort and energy to succeed and then pulling the various skills, knowledge and expertise around a table, this particular startup chose to jump the other way. That is, to try to ditch as many shareholders as it could, as fast as it could. What could have been a powerful and useful re-organisation, ended up becoming a typical shareholder scrap.

How did this happen?

It seemed to me that the lack of leadership strength – and by that I mean an “inner core” or a basic sense of doing what is right – meant that each shareholder became focused on his own agenda. Instead, capable leadership would have switched the focus to bringing about the right outcome and to ensure that everyone – as far as possible – was brought along with the new vision, to the benefit of the business and shareholders.

As I left that evening, I felt a little sad. Not because of the attempted requisition of shares, but because I couldn’t see how a team that behaved this way could succeed.

Essentially, the bond of trust was broken – not only between the shareholders who won and the shareholders who lost, but also between the remaining stakeholders. For I seriously doubt that once the dust settles on any new arrangement, the remaining shareholders will trust each other for very long.

Not only that, but the culture of the business had now been set. It’s new mantra is that it’s important to grab as many shares for yourself as soon as you can, and to heck with everyone else! That is a culture of selfishness in which our personal agendas are placed above that of the organisation.

As I work with business leaders, some exceptional and some still growing, I’ve learnt that the very best leaders are surprisingly selfless. That is, they put the needs of the organisation ahead of their own agenda.

What this startup lacked, then, was not additional funding or money. It lacked leadership – the ability to put the organisation ahead of personal equity holdings.

Which led me to wonder whether our sluggish economy isn’t really a result of too much focus on the money and our personal agendas and not enough on how we can help others to grow within our organisations.

If so, then our leadership deficit is perhaps more serious and lasting one than our financial deficit. After all, we can’t ask the Bank of England to print more great leaders.

Neil Lewis advises start-ups and high growth companies through his marketing and leadership consultancy, Media Modo and is the author of ‘100 Rules for Entrepreneurs‘.

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