LeaderBrief Q&A: Greatest Leadership Challenge Today

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Q :: From Marcia Witte

What do you consider to be the greatest leadership challenge facing leaders today — and how best might they meet the challenge?


Tom Crane

Tom Crane

A :: Team Engagement

Tom Crane

Clearly, the greatest challenge is getting individuals and teams re-engaged.

The recent financial stresses and new emerging brutally-competitive landscape makes it even more important for leaders to: refocus and re-energize people in such as way as it leads to inspired results.

Engendering commitment is important at this critical time, and that is simply done by interacting as a coach for the people one has the privilege of leading.

It requires leaders to apply or quickly develop the skills and willingness to create the high-trust coaching relationships where all parties are able to be authentic and real in their communications and feedback.

Coaching at its best, IS a re-engagement strategy.


Mike Myatt

Mike Myatt

A :: Leadership Engagement

~Mike Myatt

Oddly enough, in a world more connected than ever, I find a leader’s greatest challenge to be one of engagement. Even though few would dispute the value of being an engaged leader, many still do not practice what they preach, or at best, find it difficult to actually achieve.

The harsh reality is that great numbers of leaders continue to operate in a vacuum by sequestering themselves away in the corner office and attempting to lead from afar.  Trust me when I tell you that being out of touch is never a good position to find yourself in as leader. I rarely come across leaders who couldn’t benefit from being more meaningfully engaged on both a broader and deeper basis.

My advice to leaders is simple – go see things for yourself. I think you’ll find that your view of the world will change dramatically when you rely upon your own observations, as opposed to what you read in a management report, or what you hear third or fourth hand in a meeting. Let me be very clear…I’m not suggesting that you become a micro manager or that you stop delegating, I’m simply suggesting that you do the job the way it is supposed to be done.

Great leaders champion from the front…they are not disengaged invisible executives. As a leader, you are the visionary, influencer, champion, defender, evangelist and you must have a bias to action. You can be none of these things as a recluse…Engaged leaders are very visible and very active leaders – they question, listen, assess an react. I can promise you one thing…If as a leader you don’t have a clear read on the pulse of your organization, it won’t have a healthy pulse for very long.

It’s been said that leaders aren’t as trusted and aren’t as well liked these days. If that statement is true, it’s largely because many leaders are simply not engaged. Engaged leaders built trust, engender confidence, create rapport, and develop loyalty among peers and subordinates alike. Remember, smart leaders don’t sit atop the org chart and rule with an iron fist – they collaborate and serve. Real leaders understand their first obligation is for the care and well-being of those they serve – they cannot perform this responsibility unless they are engaged.


Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn

A :: Present Challenge

~Mark Sanborn

The biggest challenge facing a leader today? The one he or she is dealing with right now.

While there are generic leadership challenges, they seem abstract compared with the real world issues we each face daily. And while the challenges are diverse, there are several keys to help you deal with whatever they may be:

First, no matter how large nor small, the challenge isn’t the end of the world. The larger the challenger, the greater the temptation to make the issue catastrophic. Fatalism and discouragement reduce the energy you have as a leader to deal with the situation.

Second, make sure you have enough information to make an informed decision. Snap judgments are risky. Who do you need to talk to that can shed additional light on the situation? Where can you go to gather more information?

Third, nobody makes a good decision when they are angry. Leave enough space between your emotions and your actions to be prudent in what you do.

And finally, ask yourself: what pass lessons have I learned that will apply to the challenge I am facing today? We never have to start from scratch if we remember to draw on the lessons of past experience.


Dr. Arlen Burger

Dr. Arlen Burger

A :: Engaging Skepticism

~Dr. Arlen Burger

At the top of the leadership challenge list I would put engaging a skeptical or apathetic workforce. What many organizations have had to do to survive over the past 4 or 5 years (i.e., layoffs, outsourcing, restructuring, cutting benefits), as well as high-profile bad behavior at the executive levels (e.g. Bernie Madoff or Iris Robinson), has had the net effect of dramatically altering the work contract and driving employee engagement levels to their lowest point in generations.

The results of a recent Gallup poll are particularly sobering. In a broad survey of employee attitudes 29% of those surveyed rated themselves as positively engaged with their work. That’s the good news. The bad news was that 55% of survey respondents rated themselves a passively disengaged. Think of passively disengaged as doing the minimum to get by or coasting at their jobs. The final 16% said that they were actively disengaged in their work. What does this mean? A significant percentage of the work population is using work time for their interests and has no loyalty towards their employer.

While you may have been conducting yourself ethically and honestly, the behavior of other leaders, who have not, can influence the behavior of employees towards you. Trying to manage the actively disengaged, win back the passively disengaged, and keep the positively engaged productive means the leader needs to be at their persuasive best. Recovering from a trust and credibility deficient requires patience and tenacity, and makes the job of the leader more difficult. To more effectively engage employees focus on the following behaviors:

  • Approach loyalty as something you earn rather than something that is expected
  • Be as honest and transparent as you can in every interaction
  • Don’t make promises that you can’t keep
  • Conduct yourself in a manner that is consistent with the values you espouse
  • Engage in regular conversations with your team, solicit their input, and do something with it
  • Show that you value your team members in tangible ways.


Maria Gamb

Maria Gamb

A :: It’s About Trust

~Maria Gamb

Great Question! I think the number #1 challenge right now is about TRUST – lack there of between leaders and their teams, between team members and between stakeholders and the senior management of their company.

Much of this has to do with lack of communication and transparency.

46% of workers say that this lack of transparency in leadership communications will be a key factor in leaving their jobs in the coming months according to Deloitte’s 2010 Ethics & Workplace Survey.

Trust, the rebuilding of trust, coupled with more effective communication would be the 2 I see as most pressing. More insights here


Bill Treasurer

Bill Treasurer

A :: It’s About Balance

~Bill Treasurer

Good and timely question Marcia. The biggest challenge that I’m noticing is for leaders to balance the need for operational austerity and business growth. As economy remains stubbornly sluggish, leaders are searching for ways to cut expenses and drive out inefficiency. At the same time, leaders are working under mounting expectations to create growth.

The actions that leaders can take to achieve the right balance can sometimes be confusing to followers. They’ll see the leader initiate workforce reductions, for example, while increasing investments in business development – which often includes hiring more BD resources. They’ll see a leader initiate the closing of a division, while paying consultants to evaluate new acquisitions (to gain entry into new markets).

They’ll hear leaders talk about cost-cutting measures, while seeing more money being spent on client relationship building junkets. Regardless of how appropriate these management moves may be, people in lower-level positions start to draw conclusions that the leader is being inconsistent, or worse, haphazard.

To meet the challenges that are created by the austerity/growth seesaw, leaders should do these four things:

  • Take a Hit: When leaders remove perks and benefits from workers, they had better remove some of their own too. Followers want to know that leaders are suffering too. It is interesting that the word compassion comes from the Latin, “to suffer with”. When leaders demonstrate compassion by joining the workforce in experiencing hardship, loyalty between leaders and followers is strengthened.
  • Involve, Involve, Involve: People resist changes that happen “to” them, and embrace changes that happen “with” them. By involving people decisions that directly impact their work or role, the leader will get more engagement and less grief.
  • Focus on Competitiveness: Here are two words that leaders should remove from their vocabulary: cost-cutting. People don’t resist change, they resist loss, and when leaders talk about cost-cutting, their focusing on what people stand to lose. Instead, leaders should appeal to peoples’ natural competitive spirit. Ask them for ideas that will help make the company more financially competitive. Many of the ideas the leader gets back will be ways to lower costs as well as to inspire growth.
  • Create a Growth Culture: Enlist the entire workforce in the growth of the business. Business growth should be a responsibility of all employees, not just those who run the business development function. Leaders should specify the growth goals of the company, and regularly update workers on the progress being made toward those goals. They should emphasize the importance of client relationships, and encourage all employees to be good ambassadors of the organization, as well as lead-generators.


Bev Kaye

Bev Kaye

A :: It’s About The Talent

~Bev Kaye

It’s hard to not answer this question through our own particular lenses.  When you’ve looked at an area of leadership for many years, it just comes up front and center.  I think leaders today face the challenge engaging, developing and retaining the talent in their enterprise.

It seems to be common knowledge and common sense to realize that as organizations become more and more technologically proficient and equal in so many of those ways, the only differentiator will be their talent.

I have always believed that “talent” means not just the high performers…but the massive middle as well.  Too many leaders concentrate only on the “chosen few” forgetting that if the rest of their talented individuals don’t feel recognized or appreciated….they disengage, reserve their discretionary effort, and don’t support their leaders with the energy and commitment that they possess.

One way to meet the challenge is to hold a “stay interview” with every talented person on your team.  The idea of the stay interview (as opposed to the exit interview) is to say….how can I keep you with me/this organization?  And listen, listen, listen to the answer.  Then decide what one action lies within your ability to execute…and just do it!

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  1. Doug Ramsey on March 31, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Great question and very good comments from the experts. Thanks to all. To me, the biggest challenge leaders’ face today is waking up. Everything about our world is changing in very dramatic ways and our ways of doing business are no exception. Many think we are at or near an evolutionary turning point. Regardless, what we are facing today as leaders we have not seen before and the new normal is nothing is normal and everything is normal. A paradox that causes us to ask if we really know what we are doing. The Leadership failures past have roots in all the comments from the experts and in the reductionistic way leaders’ are developed and continue (or not) to learn, evolve and grow in awareness and perspectives. What I find lacking in so many leaders’ is depth in their practice, not enough time spent in reflective and critical thinking, and a serious and disciplined commitment to personal growth and development. In my experience, higher awareness and access to multiple perspectives radically changes how we see and react to familiar and unfamiliar challenges and increases our options for applying skillful means to these issues. Interventions focused on “the others” are important but the leadership challenge that I see most requires that we raise the leaders’ bar of what it means to a leader. My opinion and I could be wrong…

  2. charlee hanna on April 21, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Several answers talked about trust, engaging employees, keeping talent, all different aspects of people problems. Several others focused on the complexity of strategy in this volatile economy. People issues and strategy. Very interesting and very reveling.
    The question was “What is the biggest leadership challenge?”. Many of the answers described leaders who did not lead but rather direct, bos, managed, or dictate. They do not have willing followers, clear purpose or strong commitment to that purpose. Strategy is often self serving and short term. I have been closely following many linked in discussions over the last several years. The same type of example always arise. If leadership is so important why do we so freely give those in charge the automatic title? Just because someone is a president, CEO, or manager does not make them a leader.
    I enjoyed each answer and believe that there is great truth in each. I would answer the greatest leadership challenge today is creating leaders and moving them from bosses, managers, directors, etc.