“Leadership” is a term used so often in the business world that it’s become unremarkable. But, one experienced executive and educator has spent years mulling it over, studying it and trying to point out how it works (and doesn’t work).
Richard Dool is a professor who heads up two master’s degree programs at the Rutgers School of Communication & Information. A veteran of the Marine Corps, Dool started his professional career with AT&T and went on to serve as CEO of four technology/life sciences firms.
ROI-NJ turned to him for insights about leadership and its role for New Jersey companies.
ROI-NJ: You have several books to your name with the word ‘lead’ in the title. What fascinates you about leadership?
Richard Dool: My biggest fascination, and why I am a lifelong leadership scholar, is that, after more than 150 years of formal study, we are still not sure of all the dynamics of leadership or even have a single accepted definition of effective leadership. In 1997, Warren Bennis noted there were more than 850 definitions of the term floating around. In the 26 years since, even more have been offered.
The other aspect that fascinates me is that the leader/follower dynamic is so complex. You can have the same leader in the same company and a team doing the same roles and yet each member is having a different leadership experience.
Over the last three-plus years, I have also been intrigued with the question of why, in difficult and challenging times, some leaders meet the moment while others fall notably short.
ROI: What are the negative impacts of a lack of leadership that you see in today’s business environment in New Jersey?
RD: Leadership is the single most potent ingredient in an organization’s success or failure. Nothing has more impact.
When leaders fail to meet the moment, an array of dysfunction will seep into the organization. As examples: employee and customer doubt and frustration, retention losses, reputational capital damage and market share losses.
When leaders do not meet the moment, trust is eroded and credibility damaged. This can create long-term issues that will haunt the organization potentially for years. This is especially so if leaders do something unethical, make mistakes without any ownership, or become timid and indecisive.
To be fair, leaders today face unprecedented scrutiny driven by social media, widespread stakeholder impatience and an unrelenting demand of performance. Not all leaders can meet these conditions, but some are. And, like it or not, that is our reality. Leaders cannot use these conditions as a rationalization for non-performance.
ROI: Your 2022 book, ‘Change Fatigue Revisited: A New Framework for Leading Change,’ discusses mitigating the issue of change fatigue. Briefly, what is change fatigue and why is it relevant for business leaders?
RD: 70% of all organizational change initiatives fail to meet the objectives they were launched under. These failures are most often attributed to leadership.
Leaders often underestimate the effort and time necessary or they overestimate capacity and capability. Sometimes, because they are too far removed from the day-to-day operations or worse, are tone deaf.
They are also under pressure to perform and, if a change initiative is slow to show results, they get impatient and launch an iteration to the change initiative — thus creating a series of initiatives, which creates the notion of “change fatigue.”
ROI: How does that impact the workplace?
RD: Employees become somewhat numb to the changes and adapt a ‘this too shall pass’ attitude and approach and do not embrace the needed changes. The cycle gets repeated and employee frustration, resentment and dissatisfaction increases.
The best path forward for leaders is to build adaptability into the DNA of the organization, to embed change as a natural process and reframe change as a verb instead of a noun.
Leaders today must be effective and capable change agents. It is now a critical leadership competency; without it, the leader will be left behind.
ROI: What do you see as key qualities or traits that successful business leaders in New Jersey need? How can aspiring leaders develop these qualities?
RD: In my book, ‘Leaderocity: Leading at the Speed of Now,’ I suggest 10 critical leadership competencies to be effective in the 21st century. I am not taking the position that this is the set or even an exhaustive inventory. I offer them as a foundation, which leaders may be able to use to establish their leadership brand and enhance their leadership practices.
Leader as a:
- Change agent;
- Talent manager;
- Coach and mentor;
We do not have a single way to develop leaders in our country. The dominant method is to take a good individual contributor and promote them into a supervisory role. This often does not work, but we persist in throwing them into the role so they learn through immersion. Very few organizations have formal leadership development programs.
ROI: How does the work world change this?
RD: There are a series of actions that can be deployed to develop leaders, including:
- Discern in some form whether an employee can and wants to be a leader;
- Invest in a series of leadership assessment tools;
- Have clear expectations about the leadership role and performance;
- Offer some formal base training;
- Create mentoring opportunities;
- Encourage and expect the employee to embark on a lifelong learning process as leadership ever-evolves;
- Study other effective leaders and those who are not;
- Encourage and embed constant feedback mechanisms;
- Encourage and embed consistent performance evaluations and reflections.
ROI: Your areas of academia are communication and information. How are those particularly relevant for leaders in New Jersey?
RD: Can you imagine an effective leader who is NOT an effective communicator? Some research suggests that leaders spend as much as 60-70% of their working day in some form of communication.
Today, leaders must be adept in all three main modalities of communication: one-to-one, one-to-many and all the eforms (e.g. email, social media and video conferencing). Leaders must reach out and create connections and relationships with an array of internal and external stakeholders. They are also the brand leader of the organization and must be visible and engaged.
ROI: How is this done?
RD: Communication is also about creating dialogue. The best leaders approach communication as an interaction. The keep their finger on the pulse of their key stakeholders and seem to understand it is critical for them to hear what they need to hear versus want to hear.
The best leaders know the critical need to create an active dialogue, and they create both formal and informal bidirectional and active feedback mechanisms. They leverage all their communication tools — listening, observing, artful questioning and even moments of silence for reflection.
They are active in seeking out opposing or alternate viewpoints. They listen, internalize, reflect and take appropriate action based on the varied input. They understand what Confucius is thought to have said: ‘If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.’
As James Hume noted: ‘The art of communication is the language of leadership.’
ROI: In your opinion, what role does ethics play in the success of New Jersey businesses?
RD: There is an old saying: ‘I will not believe in your message, unless I believe in you.’ Leaders, as I noted, are under unprecedented scrutiny and judgment. They must be exemplars. They must establish, champion, live, expect and enforce ethical standards for the organization.
They cannot follow a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach or think they are above the rules. They also have to be exceptionally consistent. Consistent in values, attitude, words, actions and behaviors. This is challenging, but that is the reality.
We are also in an environment of a lot of ‘gray.’ More ethical dilemmas arising between two ‘rights.’ This demands leaders have an ethical compass to make sound ethical decisions.
Consumers and potential employees are also increasingly making personal decisions on the ethical reputation of leaders and organizations. They assess reputation and actions, and they want to see both commitment and consistency in terms of ethical standards.
ROI: Any other points about leadership?
RD: As the old saying goes, ‘It is the best of times and worst of times’ to be a leader. Some are stepping up to the moment, while others are falling short. Those who are stepping up are building reputational capital that will serve them well in the future.