In challenging times, top organizational leaders are under intense scrutiny, their beliefs, skills and actions watched closely by all. Yet little attention is generally paid to mid-level leaders -- even though their beliefs about strategic priorities and challenges can have a tremendous impact on an organization’s success or failure.
At Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, we have found that while senior and mid-level leaders generally agree about key challenges and important leadership skills, they also disagree in important ways that reflect their different organizational vantage points. Identifying and understanding those disagreements -- and the differing perspectives that underlie them -- can be a powerful tool to help clarify priorities and make sure organizational initiatives are understood and agreed upon by leaders at all levels.
In the Duke Executive Leadership Survey, conducted in fall 2008 by the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics, we asked 205 executives -- both senior and mid-level leaders -- about various leadership issues. Among other things, we asked them to identify the top leadership challenges facing their organizations and to rate the importance of 29 leadership skills for senior executives in their organizations.
That first question, we hoped, would uncover potentially divergent views among senior and mid-level leaders about strategic priorities. The second question was intended to help us understand how differing attitudes about the importance of various leadership skills affect which skills are emphasized in the development of organizational leaders.
Here’s what we found.
What are the top leadership challenges facing the organization?
Senior and mid-level leaders named many of the same issues as the biggest challenges facing their organizations. But they ranked those issues differently, and, in many instances, differed substantially in the percentage of respondents who considered an issue important.
Senior leaders identified increasing innovation, leading internal organizational growth and access to capital as the biggest challenges. By contrast, mid-level leaders named improving overall quality of their organization’s leadership, developing the next generation of leaders and increasing employee commitment/retention as top concerns.
Top leadership challenges
Rankings are based on the percent of executives listing the challenge in their Top 5; these percentages are shown in parenthesis.
Why the difference? The concern of senior leaders with innovation, growth and access to capital appears to reflect an external, or market-driven, view of organizational success. The top concerns identified by mid-level leaders, on the other hand -- quality of the organization’s leadership, developing the next generation of leaders, and increasing employee commitment -- are all inwardly focused, likely reflecting a more internal perspective on success.
Given the typical roles of senior and mid-level leaders, these alternate perspectives are not surprising. Even so, organizational leaders should make sure that these differing perspectives and the unspoken assumptions that underlie them are brought to the surface and discussed. In that way, they can help reduce the risk that leaders unknowingly disagree about organizational priorities -- one of the most common ways organizations undermine their own success.
Which leadership skills are most important for senior leaders?
Both senior and mid-level leaders were generally consistent in their ratings of the most important leadership skills needed by senior leaders, with at least one significant difference.
Acting with authenticity, promoting an ethical environment, understanding the competitive environment, developing trust in relationships, and demonstrating dedication and effort were named by both groups as crucial skills for senior executives. These findings suggest that leaders at both levels value skills that are associated with credibility, which rests upon competence and trust.
Most important leadership skills for senior leaders
As ranked by senior leaders
…15. Creating cohesive teams within my business unit.
As ranked by mid-level leaders
11. Demonstrating optimism and enthusiasm for organizational objectives
The two groups of leaders differed significantly, however, regarding the importance of creating cohesive teams. Mid-level leaders ranked it the most important skill for senior leadership. But senior leaders rated it 15th out of 29, making it their median-rated skill.
Again, these divergent responses likely reflect the different perspectives of the two leadership groups. Focused on an organization’s internal workings, mid-level leaders value cohesive teams. Day to day, they are more likely to encounter the functional silos that some senior leaders create to protect their turf and thus see a greater need for teamwork. Senior leaders, focused externally, may not value the creation of cohesive teams as highly.
While the two groups’ responses can be explained largely by their different perspectives, it is possible that other factors are also at play. Specifically, the results may indicate that mid-level leaders believe senior leaders aren’t building cohesive teams well. Additional research can help clarify why this gap is occurring, which in turn can help leaders determine if they need to pay more attention to teambuilding.
In the meantime, leaders at all levels need to remember that what they see depends in large part on where they stand. By talking about and understanding each others’ perspectives, leaders at all levels can make sure they’re on the same page.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider
- What are the biggest challenges facing the church as seen by a local pastor? A mid-level judicatory official? A bishop or other top-level leader?
- In what ways might senior and mid-level leaders in your organization unknowingly disagree about goals and priorities, based on their vantage points?
- What systems does your organization have in place to identify and address hidden disagreements that are rooted in the different perspectives of top and mid-level leaders?
- How can an organization’s senior leaders focus on external challenges while still being aware of the internal issues and challenges?