Type the word "leadership" into the Amazon website and you will find more than 100,000 search results. Why is there such significant interest in leadership and leaders? Is there an essence to leadership that can be distilled from all these books and other products – a "best way of doing it"? And with all this information available, how can you know whether you're capable of leading?
Before you read on, take a few minutes to think about how you would answer the following questions:
- What is leadership?
- What is my leadership role at the moment?
- What do good leaders do?
1. What is leadership?
If you want to understand whether or not you can be a leader, you first need to understand the meaning of "leadership". But leadership is a complex concept and, despite all the discussion of the topic, there is no clear consensus on exactly what it means, particularly in today's very culturally complex, global business world. It seems impossible to identify precisely what constitutes "good leadership" in any given context. This often depends on what we mean by "good" — and people will always disagree about that. Nevertheless, anyone who aspires to leadership needs to engage with the diverse meanings of the term and its interesting journey as a concept over time.
In 2016, the Harvard Business Review published a list of the qualities that 195 global leaders believed to be important. Communication, creativity, support and flexibility appeared on the list, as one might expect. But top of the list was "has high ethical and moral standards", listed by 67 per cent of respondents. This possibly reflects the rise of the importance of regulatory compliance and moral concerns for those in leadership roles – and shows the situational nature of what might otherwise seem like a timeless phenomenon.
2. What is your leadership style?
Another, more flexible, way of looking at leadership is to say that people like to – and can – lead in different ways, according to their specific set of talents and skills. William Marston (1893–1947) was a US psychologist who theorized that there are four main behaviour types. This approach was picked up by another psychologist, Walter Vernon Clarke (1905– 78), who developed what has become one of the most common leadership profiling tools, the "DiSC Model".
This model focuses on profiling behaviours in different situations and asks people to think about common leadership and work challenges, such as persuading others, dealing with rules and regulations, building relationships with others and reaching goals under pressure. The results profile people into one of four groups (see diagram), characterized by a related leadership preference:
- Dominance: direct, strong-willed and forceful
- Influence: sociable, talkative and lively
- Steadiness: gentle, accommodating and soft-hearted
- Conscientiousness: private, analytical and logical
3. Leading people in different situations
While early approaches to leadership focused purely on the leader, the focus later shifted to understanding the people being led, the followers. The principle of situational leadership, developed by Americans Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was based on the then revolutionary principle that there is no best style of leadership, but that leaders need to adapt their approach to the "performance readiness" of team members in specific circumstances. The idea here is that the same person may require different types of leadership in different circumstances. We can assess performance readiness by understanding the competence level of individuals and their commitment to completing a task.
Four follower profiles are then possible:
- Low competence and high commitment
- Low competence and low/variable commitment
- High competence and low/variable commitment
- High competence and high commitment
There are also four leadership styles defined in the situational leadership model:
- Participating: There is shared decision-making about aspects of how the task is accomplished and the leader provides less advice on the tasks but focuses on providing a supportive relationship.
- Telling: This is characterized by oneway communication in which the leader defines the roles of the individuals in their team.
- Delegating: The leader is still involved in decisions, but the process and responsibility has been passed to the individual or group. The leader stays involved to monitor progress.
- Selling: Although the leader is still providing the direction, they are now using two-way communication and providing the emotional support that will allow the follower to buy into the process.
4. Leading organizations through change
In the late 1980s, a new theory emerged that stressed the need for leaders to support change, working closely with teams to help them understand how organizations needed to adapt to changing and challenging business environments. Central to this "transformational leadership" approach is the need for leaders to inspire people by connecting with them on a deep values level.
This approach also involves motivating people to take greater ownership of their work, and using coaching and delegating as tools. Also, the leader develops trust and credibility by being a role model in terms of both commitment and excellence. But while high performance is expected from transformational leaders, the focus always remains strongly on enabling others.
In summary, there are a number of areas that transformational leaders need to focus on:
- making the case for change using clear and persuasive facts and figures;
- encouraging people to think beyond their own self-interest to the good of the organization;
- building a positive and cooperative climate (stressing shared values and ethical standards);
- coaching others and delegating to them so that they lead better and deliver more;
- inspiring people by being a role model in terms of commitment and excellence.
5. The need to be agile
In recent years, the term "agile" has become a buzzword in management and leadership. Agile values and principles rose to popularity following the publication in 2001 of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development. This espoused the core agile values of customer centricity, adaptive planning with iterative development, fast delivery and continuous improvement. In such a context, leadership is focused on enabling teams to perform by creating a culture based on empowerment and trust, tolerance of failure (the "fail fast" approach), combined with robust and transparent monitoring to identify if and when leaders need to intervene to support their team, and when a team can be left alone to perform.
6. Which is the best leadership theory?
Tempting though this question is, it is actually the wrong one. It should be clear by now that there is no "perfect" or "best" form of leadership. Indeed, the definition and meaning of "best" has changed dramatically in the context of leadership over the years. And no doubt people will continue to define and redefine it in the future, in line with new technologies and challenges.
Rather than asking what the best approach is, it is essential to start formulating your own approach to leadership, based on a good understanding of yourself and your capabilities (selfleadership), the needs of your colleagues and your own manager (team leadership), the strengths and weaknesses of your organization (organizational leadership), and the market opportunities and risks that need to be understood and tackled with the help of a strategic plan (environmental leadership).
7. You can't avoid leadership
Many people see leadership as something undesirable, beyond them – and within the realm and corrupt hands of "the others". This perspective ignores three key factors:
- You are always leading. Leadership is ever-present in human interaction. Every time we have a conversation, we have an impact on others and exercise influence over what happens, consciously or unconsciously. If we make a suggestion, we lead. If we decide to listen, we lead. If we choose to terminate the conversation, we lead. Our choice is never whether to lead or not, but the degree to which we accept the leadership potential available.
- Blaming others is giving up control. Leadership is often a lonely place of decision- making and responsibility. It's also a place that regularly attracts criticism from unhappy followers. Leaders are easy to blame for the failings of the company. Yet if we look for others to provide the answers to our problems, we are signalling to them that we have given up control of our own destiny. We are choosing to become a victim rather than an agent of change and are abandoning our fate to the influence of others.
- If you don't want to lead, support. Many people in leadership positions face extremely challenging situations, and often have insufficient resources and staff. They may face technologies that they can neither understand nor predict. They may be having difficulties with their own leaders, who have radically different priorities and views on how the business should be run. They may also be working more than 70 hours per week just to keep on top of things and, as a result, have no time for their own team. What such leaders need is support from their teams and a willingness on the part of team members to take some of the leadership burden from them.
8. Now, before it's too late
Leadership remains more an art than a science. It's a complex blend of skills – technical, strategic and human – and the research is still inconclusive about what makes a "good" leader or "effective" leadership. In today's demanding professional environment, many people rely heavily on their intuition – what they feel is the right way to do things, and how they prefer to lead or be led.
The danger is that, in an increasingly diverse international context, this lack of consensus on leadership, combined with the increasing complexity of leading in large organizations, will produce levels of conflict and disengagement that can threaten the efficiency and profitability of operations. It's time for us all to engage with the topic of leadership, before it's too late.