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The Leadership Conundrum – Death By Models and Frameworks!

Still-life with green apple

The Leadership Conundrum – Death By Models and Frameworks!

If one examines the present UK business context from a mainstream media perspective, perceptions tend to evolve around massive reward inequality, shareholder driven short-termism and lack of innovation. If we believe the popular press then leaders have lost sight of a broader purpose, and lack clarity in terms of a wider vision and direction that benefits the many and not the few. Further, if we examine professional body literature we find it is littered with articles that map potential consequences: wellbeing issues, lack of engagement, misaligned development practices and poor performance management. Two key questions emerge from this: Where are leaders of UK businesses going and will employees follow?

The success of any business has to start with the people within that business. The business is not a tangible entity in it’s own right. The people being led have to factor within the strategic agenda. Employees need to be inspired to ‘follow’ through clear roles and objectives wired directly to their personal DNA.

If leadership crystalizes business goals, agenda’s and cultures how does it function? How do you create influence? How can you inspire people? Are there key leadership traits that are important, and can they be applied to all contexts? How do leaders gain visionary buy in? Or, are a large proportion of employees simply driven by fear, and if so how sustainable is that reaction in terms of performance?

The number of business models and frameworks that attempt to answer these questions are forever growing and evolving to such a degree that any meaningful dialogue with business leaders is ‘framework filtered.’ Leadership consultants are hiding behind model driven dialogue and pre-defined parameters rather than discussing clear people driven strategies. Making employees the central theme of leadership development requires a focused mindset transition, altering manifest traits and consequent behaviours. It is not a set of model driven goals or parameters that are added to task orientated objectives.

One to one coaching and profiling can certainly contribute to this mindset transition, and modelling can be used to instil a common leadership currency and language within any given business. However, pre-defined development frameworks or models should be tailored, not selected and applied from the academic shelf by the consultant who swears allegiance to that particular paradigm.

It can be argued strongly that models and frameworks offer partial truths at best and can work in some cases with certain personality types within certain business spheres and cultures. In many cases, they do not adequately take into account the extent of the varying business backdrops behind the people that will be using the methods or the radically different positive and negative personalities that are guaranteed to manifest.

Overall, authors make sweeping generalisations and assertions about behavioural and psychological make up, i.e. all people are driven by their outlined motivational structures, and their leadership logistics/developmental interventions are panaceas.

Consider the following leadership quantifications – this list is by no means exhaustive:

  • Competency Theory – Leaders must possess a specific set of abilities (competencies), i.e. vision, and inspiring others.
  • Transactional LeadershipThis is a directive style that aims to influence by understanding motivation.
  • Pragmatic LeadershipThis suggests a functional problem solving orientation is required.
  • Strategic Leadership – This approach emphasises visioning and goal achievement, sometimes at all costs.
  • Visionary Leadership – This classic leadership style uses a leader’s compelling vision for the future to drive change and performance.
  • Charismatic Leadership – Leaders either have charismatic authority or they don’t.
  • Transformational Leadership – This is more humanistic and involves tapping people’s potential through shared learning, and mutual empowerment.
  • Emergent Leadership Theory – This suggests the group will want to follow the specific traits and competencies that the given challenge requires.
  • Authentic leadership – Emphasises building the leader’s legitimacy through honest relationships with followers.

Behavioural theory takes a different approach, focusing more on patterns of leadership behaviour than on the individual leader. It suggests that certain behavioural patterns may be identified as leadership styles.

Situational leadership theories propose that the effectiveness of a particular style of leadership is dependent on the context in which it is being exercised.

The complexity is complete when we turn to the common stereotypes of inspirational leaders i.e. as someone who is extrovert and charismatic. However, experience dictates this can be the exception rather than the rule. Many leaders are quiet, almost introverted.

The following are some of the most commonly observed characteristics of inspiring leaders:

  • They ensure that the business can add real value.
  • They take a much broader view than the norm.
  • Have a customer-focused vision of where the business should be going.
  • Deeply committed, courageous, demanding of themselves and their people.
  • Genuine humility and not afraid to show vulnerability.
  • They have a marked tendency to “bend the rules” and take calculated risks.
  • They make time to get out and speak to people.
  • They value skills and training very highly, but they also focus heavily on attitude.

Any one or combination of the above leadership realms of explanation could be applicable to any given leader at any given time, so it’s fair to say that leadership is just as much art as it is science.

Even when applying a trait orientated focus the problem is the success of any given set of traits will be determined by the ‘fit’ of the person within the given context, and the interactions that context entails. It’s also difficult to differentiate between traits, skills, behaviours and abilities with any conclusive certainty; and finally traits may be culture or gender specific. In practice, as consultants we can utilise trait and behavioural theories in order to support leaders to develop their own ideas about successful leadership. Further consultancy support should involve which leadership traits would be beneficial in particular situations. It may also be instructive to consider how certain styles affect relationships within the business, i.e. which styles are likely to foster commitment and buy in to goals and objectives.

In conclusion, leadership development should be informed by the plethora of interventions that exist if they indeed apply to the given situation, but it should be shaped by and evolve in accordance with the requirements of the individuals within the business. Consequently, leaders should not be overly reliant on glossy pictorial representations no matter how credible they seem. Their development focus should be on self-understanding and reflection around action as changes occur within the business ecosystem. Leaders need to learn to adapt personal strengths and mitigate weaknesses in real time. Leaders need to both construct and reflect core value systems that encapsulate the very essence of the business. They also need to ensure these values are woven into the business fabric of both current and future strategic realities. Further, leaders should drive performance not just through skills and abilities but also by ensuring that employee goals and personal motivations are clearly in tune with the core strategic agendas. More often than not strategic agenda’s both in current and future realities are simplistic at their core and the whole person DNA must be aligned to goals both now and in the future. Successfully achieving this synergy will guarantee leaders enshrine their decision making within the ‘nature’ of the collective.

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” – Benjamin Disraeli


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