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Learning to lead

Führung Leadership Chef [Quelle:, Autor: Miguel Á. Padriñán]

Quelle:, Miguel Á. Padriñán

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:

  1. Low competence and high commitment
  2. Low competence and low/variable commitment
  3. High competence and low/variable commitment
  4. High competence and high commitment

There are also four leadership styles defined in the situational leadership model:

  1. 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.
  2. Telling: This is characterized by oneway communication in which the leader defines the roles of the individuals in their team.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Case study: Leadership and collaboration

Frank works in a firm in Austria that produces beauty-care products. He recently accepted a position leading a new international marketing team responsible for Europe and the Middle East, with team members located mainly in three centres: Poland, Spain and the UK.

Until recently, the team members worked independently. They are all highly experienced and successful, and needed little direct management in the past. Frank, however, has been asked to build a cross-border organization that develops common campaigns for international brands, uses common documentation and processes, regularly shares best practices between countries and saves costs where possible. The team members report directly to their local CEO but have a “dotted line” reporting relationship to Frank.

A kick-off meeting was held at the beginning of the year, which seemed to go well, but by June, Frank is finding it very challenging to get team members to commit to the new way of working. No common campaigns have been developed; these are still developed independently, country by country, using local budgets with no cross-border cost savings.

Also, the teams continue to build their campaigns using different external and local suppliers and using different documents with different information stored on their local IT systems. This makes it impossible for Frank to compile standardized management reports.

Frank feels that the more experienced team members in the UK don’t accept his leadership. Some of them applied for his job and were rejected. Also, Frank is less experienced than they are, and has spent less time in the company. He suspects that they are acting against him in order to undermine his authority with other team members.

Frank also thinks that cultural differences are preventing collaboration. After receiving cancellations from the British and Spanish colleagues for a planned international meeting, Frank decides to write an email to clarify the objectives of the new marketing team, to define the team cooperation he expects and to re-establish his leadership.

This is Frank's e-mail:

What to think about  

  • How does Frank explain the failure of the Polish, Spanish and UK teams to follow his leadership approach and work more closely together?  
  • What do you think of Frank’s explanation? What other factors could explain the team’s lack of support for cross-border collaboration?  
  • To what extent do you think Frank’s email is an effective way to resolve the situation?  
  • What could Frank do differently to encourage collaboration?

Case study: Feedback

The following comments are provided as food for thought. Different interpretations are, of course, possible.

How does Frank explain the failure of the Polish, Spanish and UK teams to follow his leadership approach and work more closely together?

Frank seems to think that national cultural differences are the problem. He also feels that negative motivations are driving the behaviour of some of the other people – jealousy or unwillingness to give him credibility.

What do you think of Frank's explanation? What other factors could explain the team's lack of support for cross-border collaboration?

Like many business professionals, Frank seems to blame national cultural difference for the problems. But this is often an error. There are usually other and more significant factors involved. A belief in the negative motivations of others is also common but again usually false.

Frank's leadership challenge is to engage people in the different countries in a change process, to give them a clear sense of purpose for the change, and to inspire and enable them to achieve this change. Frank seems to be trying to achieve too much too fast. It could be that his timetable for change is too ambitious, or possibly too disruptive to the local operations. It may also be that he hasn't explained the case for change clearly enough, so that the local teams don't understand the value of coordinated campaigns and/or they fear that such campaigns may fail. Interestingly, they may be right. So, rather than acting negatively, they may be acting positively, in the interest of maintaining local sales with effective local campaigns.

Language skills may also be a problem. The Spanish and Polish colleagues may not have the necessary level of English – or the confidence – to work with fast-speaking native English speakers in Britain. Finally, the key reporting line for the local team members is to their local CEO. If this person does not support the international cooperation and wants to maintain a focus on more local operations, it may be that the team members want to collaborate but cannot.

To what extent do you think Frank's email is an effective way to resolve the situation?

Frank's email is an escalation and creates an opportunity to confront the issue, and possibly to build understanding of the reasons why the team is not working as a team. But the email also contains clear signs of frustration, is almost disciplinary in tone and assumes "little cooperation". So the email could be seen critically and discourage people from working with him. Many professionals would find the tone too hierarchical and disrespectful. However, others might say that it is necessary at times to be direct, to call out unacceptable behaviour and to remind people of their responsibility to execute the group strategy.

What could Frank do differently to encourage collaboration?

As an alternative to writing such an email, Frank could visit the various countries to meet the local teams and ask them how they feel about the new international structure, where they see its challenges, etc. In other words, he could begin by listening to people and trying to understand their motivations and opinions. He could then modify his leadership and communication style as necessary.

© Business Spotlight

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