Where are all the leaders

BROWSING through the hundreds of job advertisements that appeared in The Australian in 2000, I was struck by the very high calibre of senior managers companies seek to attract.

Frequent references are made to the need for exceptional communication skills, enhanced ability to lead teams, the ability to motivate and mentor staff, highly developed people management skills, exceptional leadership abilities, etc.

One might reasonably conclude that Australian public and private sector organisations are stuffed full of senior managers who exhibit these admirable qualities. But, are they?

All recent studies indicate that many Australian leaders fall well short of these ideal ‘soft’ management skills (e.g. Karpin in 1995 or Arthur D. Little in 1997).

Or, try this test. Get a piece of paper and write down the names of senior managers you know who possess the above skills and competencies.

I tried it recently and arrived at a list with two names on it!

Having worked in academia for more than 10 years, this was a rather disappointing tally (or, perhaps, indicative of the quality of senior management I have worked under).

Job advertisements are very predictable – a repetitive, stale shopping list of ‘ideal’ competencies that seem to have little connection with the skills that many candidates actually exhibit once appointed.

One has to search very hard to find adverts like the Roc Oil Company advert in 1997 that ended with the memorable line, “Doom merchants, office politicians and prima donnas need not apply for these positions”.

One essential factor missing from every single advertisement that I have seen is “having a good sense of humour”.

Research, presented at the BPS annual conference (UK) in January 1999, indicates that staff give far greater credence to humour in their senior managers than they do to intelligence and are more productive than staff who work for humourless managers. Common sense and intuition tell us that a sense of humour is an important but often overlooked personal attribute of effective leaders.

Humourous people often have the skills cited above in abundance because they are psychologically healthy, don’t take themselves too seriously and have a real interest in other people.

Humourless people often have overbearing egos, are unable to listen to others and are usually ‘toxic’ to some extent.

Funny people are also good to work with and humour is one of the best on the job stress relievers we know about.

Humour, according to Edward de Bono, is also closely linked to creative and innovative abilities.

So, why not ask job candidates to tell a few jokes or cite instances when they have used humour to diffuse tense or difficult situations at work?

This approach may well help in the process of sorting ‘doom merchants, office politicians and prima donnas’ from the people you really want to hire and work with.

* Associate Professor Nick Forster is from the Graduate School of Management, UWA

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