Leadership – out of touch and out of time?

Numerous surveys over the past 5+ years suggest leadership is out of touch with the needs of the new knowledge age workforce, and still relies on an industrial age leadership model. Change is resisted. In this article Ray considers why leaders have not progressed further in recent years. 

Too many business leaders are out of touch with their employees so say a raft of surveys and if you doubt that, here is some of the results from just some of the research reports/surveys over the past 5+ years looking at leadership performance and associated topics.


  • The 2016 Edelman Trust Survey revealed trust in business at 58%, 33% of employees do not trust their employer/leaders whilst peers and colleagues are more trusted (53%) than the CEO (49%)
  • AT Kearney in late 2015 showed almost 50% of strategy never gets implemented. Execution is a people problem not a strategy problem
  • A McKinsey report in late 2016 revealed that 70% of Change projects fail. That figure has been consistently high. What chance of innovation succeeding? 
  • Another McKinsey study said 94% of CEOs saw Innovation as key. Yet 88% of those same CEO’s didn’t think their companies were very good at it!
  • A Gallup report in 2015 showed 85% employee disengagement. In the past it might have been optional. Today it is an imperative

Being in touch is prominent in other areas. Take social media, where consumers drive the news not the brands. Brands have to be on their game by being proactive but above all brands, or rather the people, must listen. In education, Finland continues its revolution by abandoning the teaching of specific subjects. In their place will be scenarios, projects, case studies, situations etc. where key subjects will be built in and taught interactively focusing on challenging assumptions and asking searching questions to name but two. Finland has vastly improved its education over the past decade because its teachers are listened to and trusted, yes trusted, to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around. I can hear the shrieks of horror from the status quo brigade!

In business, the status quo appears entrenched and a transformation is well overdue. As Gary Hamel, Visiting Professor at the London Business School noted, “CEO’s cling to the past until technology and the future overtakes them”. He has a point doesn’t he?

We have an increasingly knowledge age workforce still being led by an Industrial age leadership. Gallup reported in late 2015 that 82% of manager appointments were wrong. Astonishing when you consider many of those managers were/will be promoted to leadership positions. Look at any business magazine covering “Productivity” - levels are falling. Steve Jobs commented “We should not be employing talent and telling them what to do, the talent we hire should be telling us what to do”. That’s called letting go. You cannot ignore the consistency of these survey results.

Today’s knowledge workers are people who likely know more about what they are doing than their boss does and that frightens a lot of leaders to death. Peter Drucker opined “Fundamentally, the ever-increasing presence of the knowledge worker threatens to render our traditional assumptions about top-down leadership obsolete." Would anyone argue with that? We should remember people don’t leave companies, they fire their boss. Leaders like to say ‘they resigned”. 

Does the programme “Undercover CEO” strike a chord? What the CEO discovers usually comes as a complete surprise not to mention to the executive team, so are they out of touch? Surveys from PwC and Bain & Co over five years ago highlighted that businesses were significantly out of touch with their clients and employees respectively. Today leadership is still out of touch.

Leaders/CEO’s simply have to recognise:


  • a high degree of Emotional Intelligence is a key requirement i.e. people skills
  • being technically/functionally competent is no longer a pass to leadership
  • trust is not an option
  • they need to understand themselves and their executive member far better. Most do not as they rely simply on out of date experience and subjective assessment. Science can help here if they care to look/ask
  • “telling’ is replacing “asking”. Can leaders let go, pass control along the line and help coach people/teams to grow and improve? Coaching is under utilised and under developed. CEO’s think they know best  
  • they and their board/executive need to be aligned within and across the executive team and with the teams all the way down and through the organisation. Miss alignment is common. We see it in our work
  • they must be champions of change better still transformation. They may know ‘what’ the changes are but struggle with the ‘how’.
  • they must get employees engaged in every transformation from the outset in fact they have to be part of the implementation team.
  • a senior leader must drive that transformation consistently, not delegate it
  • they must be great communicators and that means primarily active listening
  • admit their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and errors.
  • establish a clear purpose, not just a vision and mission and live it everyday
  • recognise that failure is part of growing and improving. As AJ Laffley Chairman of P&G said “Fail early, fail cheaply”
  • the ability to adapt is paramount. As the economist John Keynes said “As the facts change so I change my mind”. Are CEOs just ‘one trick ponies’
  • innovation is key
  • need to be intuitive, dynamic, collaborative and build a culture that reflects that.


When people believe in a) the company purpose b) the CEO and the Leadership team and c) can see their role playing its part, extraordinary things happen. Now that’s a nice touch.




Ray Bigger is the Managing Director of Think8, a consultancy that works with C-level Executives to help design and run retreats, off-sites and conferences specifically addressing Leadership Alignment, Transformation, Communication and Effectiveness. Think8 has a portfolio of awarding-winning Sales Force Development tools to transform sales force strategy and revenues. Ray can be contacted at ray@think8.net.