Two perspectives on leadership

I was recently invited to fill out a questionnaire for a colleague who was being assessed for a 360 degree appraisal concerning her leadership abilities, although I did not work for her organisation. I was being invited to offer an ‘outsider’s’ perspective. To the best of my knowledge this colleague does not lead a large team, although she has a very senior position. I understand this questionnaire to be a reflection of many organisations’ preoccupation with leadership and their need to quantify and assess the leadership potential of their employees, whether they are in leadership positions or not. It is part of a much wider discourse about leadership and a widely accepted supposition that it is a critical determinant of organisational success.

This particular questionnaire comprised 40 or so Likert scale questions with four discursive questions at the end asking about the colleague’s principle strengths and weaknesses. The questions divided roughly into eight main themes.

Theme one asked for my assessment of my colleague’s ability to promote collaboration and team working and to encourage team contributions. Theme two concerned the colleague’s ability to embrace/encourage/generate change and innovation – was my colleague able to take risks and stand by them? Theme three, was my colleague confident and positive? Four: did she have an aspiring, compelling vision which she could communicate to enthuse colleagues? Five: could she communicate positively, stating clearly what she believes, and able to convey complex ideas with brevity? Six, was she able to create the right culture where people were motivated and enjoyed high morale? Seven, was she able to acknowledge different positions and find ways of reconciling them? And finally, was my colleague able to concentrate of performance and develop metrics to measure it?

Thematically the questionnaire covered what one might expect from an orthodox perspective on what good leadership might be, including that these are skills or abilities which a member of staff ‘has’ for all time irrespective of context or who she would be working with. There are a number of other assumptions implicit in the questionnaire which seem to me to be questionable, not least the idea that there is a difference between leadership and management; many of the areas of enquiry would seem to be suitable for either discipline, if they are separate disciplines.

The tenor of questionnaire conjures up an orderly organizational world with the leader in rational control, proposing and disposing, choosing and identifying, analyzing and solving. This leader is aware that there might be differences of opinion, even conflict, (although there were only two questions from the 40 acknowledging this) but this does not faze them, since they are able to point out the differences, accept, soothe and reconcile. The leader has positional power and can use it to convince colleagues of change, which is good for them and which they are likely to oppose. Change is always good, and so is innovation: this leader is always innovative knowing in advance what will turn out well for the organization. The leader is able to tell the difference between a risky risk and one that is reasonable: they are just on the right side of edgy. This leader is authentic, possessing an authenticity aligned with organizational objectives, and can speak clearly about who they are and what they stand for, but not in a way that uses words and phrases which are too high-falutin. S/he is committed to good performance and can develop systems to measure it. Moreover, the leader has powers to create a culture, if teams could be deemed to have such a thing, where staff work with high morale and motivation. Not least of the leader’s skills is the ability to see into the future and to convey their foresight in compelling and exciting terms.

The staff this leader inspires are bit part players, adjuncts to the leader’s will, a cast of actors to be directed, moulded, aroused and measured, all for the good of the organization.

Here is an alternative set of assumptions articulated from the perspective which has been set out in this blog.

In the game of organizational life the leader can expect to be as much played by the game as they are playing it. They are not standing on the sidelines dictating the course of the game. Although they may have positional power, they too are subject to requests and requirements which often come from left field, unexpected or unintended consequences, disrupting and displacing their carefully articulated projects, plans and milestones. They may be in charge of an interdependent team of people, but they will often not be in control, as their team members compete and co-operate to get things done together. Sometimes the team leader will be more dependent on certain team members, or the goodwill of the team as a whole, than they are on the leader’s: the power relationship will tilt back the other way. The leader will be aware that hitting the target is not the same as good performance and that no one can do their job without the co-operation of everyone else.

Sometimes staff will do what is required of them and will do it well and creatively. And sometimes they will subvert, misunderstand, mishear, act up, be difficult, connive and generally follow their own interests. It is in the exploration of this daily hurly burly that what we later come to call ‘innovations’ emerge, although we may not realise it till afterwards. Beyond recognizing differences and reconciling them, the leader may even want to encourage the surfacing of differences, trying to develop judgement about when they are beginning to get in the way of work, and when they are making it richer and full of possibilities. In this exploration the leader may be including some and excluding others, and this is an inevitable part of the job they do: it is not possible to include everyone all of the time.

More often than not the leader will be required to act into conditions of uncertainty, which is very different from taking calculated risks (but not too big ones), but they will have to act anyway. They will not necessarily be positive and confident about what they are doing, although they might have to appear as they are, depending on what kind of relationship they have with their team. In this sense they are required to be truly courageous given that they cannot always know how things will turn out, or that good things will happen despite their good intentions. They will be constantly working with their own anxiety, and becoming more aware of what makes them anxious may give them more scope to avoid falling into repetitive and unhelpful behavior. They will notice how much their sense of self and their confidence is affected by the situations they find themselves in with others, how bound they are to processes of mutual recognition and becoming. Sometimes it may be helpful to others to disclose a lack of confidence about outcomes.

The leader will be required to improvise and negotiate and develop practical judgment in relation to the particular people they are working with and the particular circumstances they face together. They will be constantly juggling with both change and stability, rather than privileging one or the other. Sometimes they will have to act fast to try and keep things the same because some things are worth preserving, and achieving this also takes effort with others. Being stable is not the same as being stuck, and ‘innovations’ can sometimes be catastrophic for organizational objectives. The leader will be astute about the power relations they are bound up in with others. One aspect of this power is the symbolic role that they play in the imaginative lives of their team: one result of the ubiquitous discourse on transformational leadership is that staff may have very high, perhaps unrealistic expectations, may anticipate the heroic and transformative behaviour that we have previously critiqued as unrealistic. If leaders consciously play into these expectations they may reap what they sow. Equally, there will be occasions where they will need to fulfill collective and symbolic expectations if they are to convince and be recognized as leaders.

They will learn to cultivate the ability to take the attitude of more and more others to themselves, and by doing so they may develop the capacity to articulate narratives about what ‘we’ are doing together, what may be possible for ‘us’, in which team members come to recognize themselves. It is through these compelling, grounded narratives that their team members may come to be inspired and renew hope.

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