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August 09, 2007

The changing face of leadership

Leadership is one of the most fascinating human attributes, and it is fascinating precisely because we cannot stereotype it. Look at the models of leadership we are most familiar with and you could be excused for thinking they are typically seven foot tall, built like Arnold Swartznegger, with that steely eyed expression that brooks no nonsense. Yet is that a good picture of a "leader".

Sir Winston Churchill certainly could not be accused of conforming to that mold and neither could Admiral Lord Nelson or Admiral A B Cunnigham, much less Sir Francis Drake or Queen Elizabeth the First. They were all small people who walked large on the world at the appropriate time, yet most of the time you would probably have been hard pressed to recognise them in the street. Sir Winston is perhaps the most poignant example of a leader whose skills of leadershjip were most evident at a particular moment - and not at others. Sir Winston was a political outcast right up to the moment he - to quote the late President J F Kennedy - "mobilised the English language and sent it marching out to war." Certainly Elizabeth Tudor would have recognised the skills he displayed and the foresight and depth of insight he brought to leadership of this nation during the war. Some of his decisions would not have been popular - and still rankle in certain parts of the former Empire - but they were the right decisions in the long run and they were often made in the full knowledge that they did not and would not meet the populist perception of what should be done.

Some are born to leadership roles and grow into them, others find themselves having to assume the mantle and either make a decent job of it, or are destroyed by their inability to carry others along with them. Nelson's "magic" was his ability to attract to his Flag those who were willing to venture ideas, opinions and tactics and have him adapt or reject them as he considered appropriate. He built teams of leaders - and leaders can be the very worst members of any team - in such a way that he was able to borrow their strengths and use them to best advantage. That was why they were prepared to follow him and to play according to his rules. Admiral Cunningham had a similar magic. He could be "one of the gang" without anyone ever assuming that this meant he or she was on an equal footing, but, when the moment required it, he could assume the full mantle of command and knew that his "team" (Like Nelson, the whole of his Fleet) would do their utmost to fulfil his expectations of them.

Being the "leader" is a nice balancing act - a tight rope between being one of the team and taking full and unreserved responsibility for its success or its failure. This is not a "committee position". Yes, he or she may have to consult their team through a "committee" forum, but, at the end of the day they, and they alone, are responsible.

I was struck recently by an item in the Scientific American concerning the changing concept of leadership which suggests that successful modern leaders are those who play by populist rules and fulfil populist expectations. To me that is not leadership, that is politics - and the two are very, very different. Sometimes a leader must be prepared to make a decision and act on it which flies in the face of populist sentiment precisely because that will be the fairest and least damaging choice. A populist leader will avoid making such a decision entirely and instead follow the crowd thereby abdicating all claim to being "the Leader".

My leadership training emphasised several aspects which I will try to summarise here:

1. Leaders listen, they listen to their team and they take on board the individuals needs, concerns and ideas,
2. Leaders use persuasion to carry their teams along with them, they communicate effectively and clearly, avoiding "buzz" words and phrases, slogans and other meaningless jargon when talking to their people. They NEVER ever talk down to a member of a team.
3. They know their people, their strengths, their fears, their weaknesses and play to these, never asking someone to do more than they can offer, but encouraging them to stretch their own limits and grow.
4. No leader ever asks a committee to make a decision for them. They consult, they may even delegate a part of the planning process and they will certainly persuade and enthuse - but the final "lets do this" is the Leader's alone.
5. A good leader is able to outline what they want the team to achieve and then stand back and let them do it. They don't micro-manage, set targets and demand returns and constant reports on progress, they set out the objective and the deadline, then let the individuals get it done.
6. Finally, a Leader is one who knows how to do the thing "right" according to the "rules", but will also know when doing the "right thing" is FAR more important than doing it "right".

Unfortunately most of the "studies" done on "leadership" in the last century have been done by men and women who have never been in a position of true leadership. Many have managed staff but they have never had to lead a team through adversity, through survival in a liferaft, through attack by an enemy when short on ammunition or shelter. That is when the real leaders emerge, when the youth everyone has teased and chided suddenly becomes a man and takes charge, leading the wounded to safety or extricating the family from the edge of disaster. It is not something that can be quantified, measured or even, as I said at the outset, stereotyped. And it is the error of our age to confuse "Management" with "Leadership".

Management is a function of leadership, not its equal and we would do well to remember that.

Posted by The Gray Monk at August 9, 2007 03:36 PM

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Wow. That is the best I have heard on leadership in a while. Where were you when I was taking 'supervisor' courses??? ok, that was 8 years ago... but still... ;-)

Posted by: vw bug at August 9, 2007 07:34 PM

Gray Monk, your list is spot-on.

I have held several positions of responsible charge, not the least of which was running a highly active security shift in a busy Nevada casino for quite some time, learning as I went (don't we all), and I have to say that at the end of the day, your list of good leadership aspects looks exactly like mine.

Posted by: Seth at August 12, 2007 03:11 PM

The face of leadership is going to change again, at least in the US. Mainly because of the war. We are creating a generation of persons who have had to make tough choices that have led to people dieing. As far as I am concerned that is the truest test of a leader. You can still get fools who make it through that test but not as many fools as those who only have "college" as their test of leadership.

Posted by: skipjack at August 17, 2007 04:24 AM

With a little luck it may filter through here as well, but sadly I think the vast army of elevated filing clerks we have masquerading as leaders are likely to form an effective blockage for many years to come.

Posted by: The Gray Monk at August 17, 2007 09:08 AM