1 Everyone knows what good leadership is in the abstract and the ideal. But there is no leadership in the abstract. There is only what you do when you show up at work, and this will never be ideal. So if you are a leader you are always a work in progress making it up as you go along with your colleagues. You won’t always know what to do, and that’s ok. One of the central tasks of leadership is how you work out what needs to be done together.
2 Whenever I work with senior people it is only a matter of time before someone mentions Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King (I have a dream) or Gandhi (be the change you want to see). You are none of these people, nor do you need to be an exceptional world leader to do your job. You might be good at your job and the right person to be leading, and you might just have got lucky or speak the right kind of leaderly language. But the more you play into the ‘exceptional leader’ narrative the more you will invite denigration and opportunities for people to point out that you have feet of clay. As a leader you will have a strong role in people’s fantasies and imaginative life (because of the strength of the leadership discourse) , and this will need to be handled with caution.
3 Relax about the vision thing (see 1 and 2 above). Saints and prophets have visions, and visions of the corporate variety are often so grandiose or vacuous as to be meaningless: everyone wants to be ‘best in class’, ‘world leading’, or ‘internationally renowned’, so what does it mean if you do too? This is not the same as saying that you shouldn’t be ambitious for your organisation, set high standards and want that you and your colleagues do the best you all can. It might be perfectly obvious to you and your senior colleagues what needs to be done, but so might something else in six months time when the game has changed.
4 You are highly unlikely to ‘transform’ anything if you mean by this that you can guarantee bringing about wholesale change for the good. Changes you make will bring about the expected, the unexpected and the unwanted. There will always be unintended consequences, and ‘success’ will depend upon who is judging and when the judgment is made. Large initiatives may make little difference and widespread change might come about from a conversation in a corridor. You must live forwards but can only understand backwards. Leadership, as an academic pointed out, is often about the ‘extraordinisation of the mundane’ – much of what you do as a leader is no different from what most people do at work, but the ordinary conversation you have with a colleague may have special significance because you’re the boss.
5 No one can design organisational culture, not even the most powerful and successful leader, if by culture we mean what we’re all doing together. You can change people’s work, set them targets, punish and cajole, tell them that they have to demonstrate certain behaviours and reward them accordingly, but how they respond to this will be largely beyond your control (unless you live in North Korea). Attempts to manipulate people’s values may well result in resistance, more or less overt, and/or superficial compliance. If people don’t have a choice about their values, rather their values ‘choose them’, then what are you getting in to if you try to dictate your colleagues’ values?
6 And You won’t be able to choose your leadership ‘style’ if by this you think you can rationally chose the kind of leader you want to be before you show up at work, like choosing an outfit. You are much more likely to be moulded by the organisation you work for than to mould it. You will find yourself responding to the game of organisational life in ways which will surprise you as you run to keep up, even if you’re the boss. You’re in charge, but you’re not always in control, not even of yourself.
And the thing which should keep you awake at night is that if you said any of these things in an interview for a leadership role you probably wouldn’t get the job. This is because leadership, as one academic has pointed out, is the subject of much dogmatically stated nonsense which seems to have a grip on the public imagination, not least because some of the tropes about the powers of exceptional leaders are repeated over and over so they are taken for granted as self evident truths. Everyone these days is thought to need leadership training, no matter how lowly their job, and many organisational problems are ascribed to ‘absence of leadership’. The myths about leadership are now self- sustaining.