Leadership

Here's why you should stop trying to imitate the world's celebrity CEOs

Elon Musk 
Mark Brake | Getty Images
Elon Musk 

We live in a time in which many CEOs are gaining celebrity status. But to hold the world's top business brains on a pedestal is to forget one of the most important aspects of leadership: teamwork.

As the centuries-old trope from poet John Donne goes, "no man is an island." Yet, too frequently we focus on leadership solely as an individual endeavor, trying to replicate the personal habits of leaders like Tesla's Elon Musk and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Although there's unquestionably an individual aspect to leadership, it's becoming increasingly important to seek success with a collaborative approach.

In fact, we've seen an increase in stories lately where individual leaders have been so focused on their personal agendas that they've made major missteps for the company. Take the recent example of Travis Kalanick, Uber's former CEO, who put his company in a tailspin by reportedly reinforcing a dysfunctional culture, leading to his departure. Under Kalanick, Uber had a "Hobbesian environment where workers are pitted against one another," according to The New York Times.

Such failures reveal that a lack of a collective leadership culture cripples a company's ability to compete in today's complex business environment. To survive, companies need to have a strong team that represents multiple viewpoints — often challenging those of the top leader — and varied skill sets to drive the innovation and planning they need. Leadership can no longer be heavily dependent on a single individual: The right decisions, made at a blistering pace, depend on a collaborative and aligned leadership team.

Do companies realize leadership is a team sport?

In our Global Leadership Forecast 2018 — published by DDI, The Conference Board, and EY with support from CNBC — we took a closer look at the concept of collective leadership. We defined the concept as working across organizational boundaries, using multiple perspectives to determine success, seeking synergies between group efforts, co-creation of the company's direction and leader collaboration toward shared goals.

More than 25,000 leaders from nearly 2,500 companies across 54 countries participated in the research. Here is what we found:

- Real shared leadership in many organizations is still just an aspiration. Only a slight majority of leaders said they feel that they are part of shared decision making in their companies or that leaders truly collaborate to make more effective decisions.

- Companies with collective leadership are much more agile and ready for the future. They are five times more likely to have stronger leadership bench strength and have high leader retention, and are better able to react decisively to change and shifting customer needs, the research showed.

- The cost of misalignment is high, especially at the most senior ranks. We compared those organizations whose leaders felt that collective leadership was high with those whose leaders felt it was low. We found considerable cultural differences between the two groups as shown below. When collective leadership was solidly in place, companies were three times more likely to capably respond to the competitive environment. They were also three times more likely to understand and act on changing customer needs and perspectives.

While critics of collective leadership say it inhibits the ability to move fast, our research shows that there are key areas where a lack of cooperative leadership at the top-level and beyond can have negative effects.

Perhaps the most damaging is the loss of energy and passion that can permeate a business as a result of senior leaders not working together for the greater good. That, in turn, can have a substantial negative impact on company results.

How can you move toward a team-oriented culture?

1. Put people in key leadership positions who have a reputation for collaboration. Far too many leaders make it to the top because they truly think they are the "island."

2. Be an organization that respects all forms of diversity: Shared leadership will work far better in an inclusive and diverse work environment.

3. Consider rewards and bonuses that are more team-based and less based on individual performance.

4. Explore ways to remove teams operating in rigid silos, and instead focus on creating multidisciplinary teams that work across organizational boundaries. Flexible teams help to break down silos, which are the biggest barriers to collective leadership and overall innovation.

5. Provide a call-to-action for your organization by being purpose-driven, and be sure to answer why your organization exists, rather than just what is does. Purpose helps to ensure that your team is aligned in working toward shared goals.

While leadership is increasingly depicted publicly as driven by individual personality and power, the reality is that effective leadership has become more about collaboration among a team of leaders. Even star players won't be able to lead the organization toward a win unless they have a team of equally strong teammates who collectively make the entire company stronger.

Evan Sinar is chief scientist and vice president at global leadership company DDI, and Richard Wellins is a senior research associate. Both are authors of the Global Leadership Forecast 2018, published in collaboration between DDI, The Conference Board, and EY.