CliffAccording to a new survey from talent management solutions provider Saba and research service, we’re facing a leadership gap in the work world.

What, exactly, does that mean? Take a look at a few stats from the survey:

  • 30 percent of HR executives polled said they were struggling to find candidates to fill senior leadership roles.
  • 59 percent of companies polled said that succession planning is more challenging in today’s economy.
  • 46 percent of companies polled said that leadership was the hardest skill to find in employees.

Meanwhile, on the employee side of things:

  • A slight 15 percent of employees feel the training they receive from their companies’ leadership dvelopment programs is properly preparing them to become leaders.
  • Only 11 percent of employees even want to join the ranks of the C-suite.

According to a Emily He, CMO of Saba, a communication breakdown may be partly responsible for this leadership gap.

“The ironic thing is, many people consider themselves to be leaders, and they want to be leaders, but their definition of leader is different from the traditional leader,” He says.

Traditionally, leadership development programs in the U.S. have focused on elite employees, the select few deemed good enough to ascend to the upper echelons of leadership.

But, He says, today’s employee doesn’t think leadership is a matter of title, rank, or status. In fact, in an earlier survey from Saba, 68 percent of people said they considered themselves to be leaders, no matter what their titles or roles were. These employees think leadership is a matter of asserting influence in certain situations, contributing to the company’s bottom line, and finding meaning and purpose in the work they do.

Perhaps this is why so many employers are having a hard time finding leaders and making succession plans.

“Traditionally, we look at leadership as an elitist program that focuses on the select few, the top tier,” He says. “And that’s why, I think, the leadership programs that companies have today don’t work. They appeal to the elitist few, whereas employees today consider themselves leaders if they have achieved mastery in their respective domains. They feel they can play leadership roles in certain projects or certain situations.”

Inverting the Pyramid: the New Approach to Leadership

Solving the leadership gap is not a matter of convincing more employees to aspire to aspire to corner offices and meetings with shareholders. Rather, He says, it’s time for companies to bring their definitions of leadership in line with the way their employees define leadership: as a flexible skill that occurs at all levels and in all situations, rather than a rigid hierarchical category.

“For companies to appeal to the next generation of leaders, they almost need to invert the pyramid,” He says. “Instead of focusing on the few leaders they have selected to take over the business, they need to focus on creating leaders at all levels of the organization and offer personalized leadership programs to support employees so that they feel they can be leaders in their respective areas.”

Today’s employees — especially millennials, according to He — want to carve out their own career paths. They don’t want to follow preset trails; they’d rather blaze their own.

“They want to understand their own strengths and weaknesses. They want to know … how they can be the best they can be,” He says. “They aspire to be leaders, but they don’t fit the traditional definition of leaders.”

As examples of what the new leader looks like, He offers bloggers and thought leaders who may not be the heads of companies, but who still affect their industries in very real and powerful ways.

“They don’t really fit any traditional role of leadership, but they are leaders in their own right, because they are so good at what they do,” He says.

New Models of Leadership Lead to New Hierarchies in the Workplace

If it’s time for businesses to redefine what leadership looks like and who leaders are, then it’s also time for them to ditch their traditional structures of leadership in favor of more fluid and dynamic models.

He believes that many companies should adopt leadership and management systems similar to Zappos’s move to “holocracy.”

Holocracy is “a distributed authority system,” according to 

“Unlike conventional top-down or progressive bottom-up approaches, it integrates the benefits of both without relying on parental heroic leaders. Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility through dynamic governance and transparent operations.”

In the holocractic model of Zappos, He says, “everybody in the company gets the opportunity to be a leader, if they want to be a leader.”

And that, He says, is the future of leadership — and the way we’ll solve the leadership gap.

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