The Future of Leadership I - Learning how to Lead

leadership organisation performance Jun 21, 2021
Learning how to Lead

Written by Richard Claydon | (cover image: @justindkauffman)

 In the film Reality Bites, Wynona Ryder’s character is asked to define irony. Fumbling around for an answer, she blurts out, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it”.   Later she asks Ethan Hawke’s character whether he can define it. He cooly replies, “It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.”  As a number of critics have pointed out, this is only a partial definition, failing to take into account the myriad of different definitions of the concept that have debated over the last couple of millennia. 

What is Leadership?

Similar interchanges might also be employed to describe our thinking and feeling about leadership.  While we might struggle to define it, many of us feel we know it when we see it. But do we?  It seems that our interpretations are partial and biased, and will be rejected by others with competing or contradictory perspectives.  

For example, while some Americans think Donald Trump is one of the greatest presidents in history, others interpret his behaviour as a combination of narcissism, toxicity, buffoonery and naked self-interest. In the UK, some think Prime Minister Boris Johnson has charisma and intelligence, whereas others find him untrustworthy and Machiavellian. At one time, ex-WeWork CEO Adam Neumann was being heralded as the next Steve Jobs. A few months later and he’s one of the most hated men in America. Even Jobs has been portrayed in terms of leadership genius and destructive toxicity. 

This leads us to an important question. Is leadership something we can objectively define or are subjective interpretations inevitable? How can we possibly educate our future leaders if we can’t even agree on what great leadership looks like, and find that leaders who seem to fit definitions of greatness keep on having feet of clay?

Disagreements about the definition of great leadership have swirled around the concept since Thomas Carlyle claimed it was a set of heroic traits, such as superior intellect, heroic courage, or divine inspiration. characteristic of great men throughout the ages, only to be rebuffed by Herbert Spencer who claimed greatness was merely the product of social environment. 

In the years since Kurt Lewin arguably set in motion the discipline of leadership studies with his characterization of autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire leaders, things have become more and more complex and confusing. 

Is leadership a concept distinct from management, swirling around romantic ideas of genius and heroism, as argued by Abraham Zaleznik?  Or does contemporary leadership necessarily involve interdependence with management skills? 

Is the focus on leadership an extension of attempts to scientifically understand and train senior business professionals that underpinned the emergence and development of business schools, starting from teaching and training administration skills (as in MBA) via management to executive skills to, finally, leadership skills. Is leadership a reflective, cognitive practice in which the leader plans out strategies and actions from an elevated dias, or is it, as Henry Mintzberg claims, fragmented and messy. 

Leadership isn’t a benign phenomenon, either. In recent years there have been attempts to define leadership via four different perspectives - functionalist, interpretivist, critical and critical performative. These definitions have drawn attention to less than benign functions and outputs of leadership, focusing on misused power, illegitimate coercion, and the possibility of sociopathic traits helping people get promoted into positions of authority (which, in turn, has led to the suggestion that authority and leadership are different phenomena).  They have also illustrated how leadership is an interaction of action and reflection (or performance and critique), both of which need to be understood to understand the enacted processes of leadership. 

There are also different levels of leadership. Are we talking about leading teams, leading departments, leading organizations or leading movements? Are the same set of skills and characteristics necessary in all the levels? 

There are also time-based definitional constructs at play.  There have also been times when being a leader was perhaps less glamorous than being a manager, and certainly came with less power or reward.  Many of us will remember when becoming a team leader was synonymous with gaining some managerial responsibility without a reconsumarate pay raise. 

There are also differences between how some leadership development disciplines, practices or groups, such as The Leadership Circle, perceive leadership in comparison to the demands and expectations of many organisations. Whereas the former tends to perceive leadership as components of the self, such as traits, behaviours and styles, the latter tends to be more interested in leadership as a collection of industry and organisational skills and experience. 

With such a range of complex and competing concepts, ideas and definitions circling around the leadership development community, the core challenge for those teaching or trying to learn leadership is navigational.  How can a student of leadership, or a L&D department, plot a pathway through such a confusing landscape?

To put it mildly, attempts by L&D departments to navigate the landscape and generate next generation leaders have not been successful.  Deloitte reports that only 7% of companies believe they are capable of developing Millennial leaders, only 14% are confident in their succession planning, and only 13% can develop global leaders. There is clearly a disconnect from trying to develop people into leaders and the ability of getting them there. 

Explaining and Teaching Leadership

To combat and explain this challenge, we draw upon Karl Weick’s classic analysis of theories of organisation, which he outlined in The Social Psychology of Organizations. Employing Warren Thorngate’s theory of commensurate complexity,  Weick argued that social science research on organisation aimed at being generalizable, accurate and simple. Arguing that trying to combine all three has defined much organisational research, he writes: 

"I think much organizational research is uninformative and pedestrian partly because people have tried to make it general and accurate and simple.  In trying to accommodate all three of these aims, none have been realized vigorously; the result has been bland assertions." 

Our argument is that much of what Weick argued had befallen organizational research in the 1970-80s has befallen leadership research today. Our solution is to relegate research that has attempted to meld the general, accurate and simple to the backbenches, and focus on helping students and L&D teams to learn from research that is either general and accurate, accurate and simple, or general and simple.  The latter two are gateways into a landscape that has many pathways to the generalizable and accurate studies of leadership sitting on the top of the mountain.

The Three Modes of Leadership Learning

Simple and accurate, but not generalizable → case studies of leadership, such as biographies of industry greats such as Steve Jobs or Nelson Mandela, or self-penned books written about a leader’s experiences and methodologies, such as True North by Bill George or Principles by Ray Dalio. 

While simple and accurate books can offer great insights into the experience of a single leader, they can’t be generalized across all the situations a leader operating in different contexts, companies, geographies and industries might face. 

Simple and generalizable, but not accurate → popular books on leadership with aphorism-esque titles, such as Simon Sinek’s Start With Why or Leaders Eat Last, listicles such as Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or John Maxwell’s 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.

Simple and generalizable books provide useful and motivational insights to kickstart an exploration of leadership, but become increasingly simplistic as the student enters the field more deeply. Other simple and generalizable gateways might include things such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which, despite having little academic credibility, could kickstart somebody’s interest in the self-reflective elements of leadership. 

Generalizable and accurate, but not simple → overdeterminism, driven by the feeling that an explanation that satisfies Occam’s Razor should be disturbing rather than satisfying.  Enlarges questions rather than shrinks them, resulting in a risk of overcomplexity and obscurity. 

Takes too long to understand and train, without any guaranteed long-term outcomes.  For example, work that we would claim is generalizable and accurate, such as Torbert’s work on leadership development or Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership, suggest that very few people (roughly 0.1%) ever attain the highest levels of leadership.  For example, Torbert claims Level 7 leadership (Alchemy) only appears in glimpses, and that Level 8 (Irony) is so rare that it is almost theoretical.  Even Jim Collins claims that only 12 out of the 14,000 leaders he had observed during his research reached Level 5 Leadership. 

Excelling in one leadership domain is also no guarantee of excelling in another domain.  One of Heifetz's leadership archetypes is President Lydon Johnson, who he argues was an exemplar of adaptive leadership in domestic policy, and the precise opposite in foreign policy. 

Furthermore, the descriptions of leadership in these models are extremely complex and alien to the language of business, requiring learners to move far from their comfort zones to assimilate the concepts and translate them into everyday terminologies.

One element of high quality leadership development is to help more people climb closer to the rarified peaks of the leadership described in such research - to enable more than 0.1% of people to climb the leadership mountain, and to remain there for longer and longer periods. However, we also recognise the practical difficulties facing L&D teams when confronted by such a realisation. How can they possibly justify spending leadership development budgets on such a fragile promise given those numbers?

The Difference between Performance, Potential and Readiness

Unfortunately, an attachment to and understanding of either simple and general, or simple and accurate leadership texts and theories are not clues to a person’s potential for leadership.  In fact, an over-attraction to any one of the theories without a desire to explore further might well be a clue to a lack of potential.  There needs to be a methodology that can track their further development from their inspirational starting point which can reveal their potential and readiness for leadership roles. 

Such a methodology can help businesses struggling to differentiate between job performance, leadership potential, and leadership readiness.  While research suggests most high potential leaders are likely to be high performers, the reverse correlation is far less conclusion. Many high performers are performing well because they fit their job, not because they are future leaders who need to be promoted to bloom even further. Even if an organisation were to properly distinguish between performance and potential, the question of how ready the person is to lead still needs to be answered. 


The Long Learning Path to Good Leadership

A further practical consideration is the 0.1% challenge. If so few humans are ever going to be capable of reaching such a plateau of leadership excellence, BUT organisations need leadership skills to a greater and greater degree, what can be done? 

Currently, thanks to the ideas that leaders need to be well-rounded individuals, there is an understandable focus on trying to develop the aspects of leadership you aren’t so talented in and a lack of attention paid to the elements you are talented in, leading to the development of well-rounded mediocrities rather than enabling spikes in leadership abilities.

As there seems to be a disconnect between the multiple years required to develop leaders in formal or accredited training programmes and the degree to which a range of leadership skills are required in every aspect of organisational life on an everyday basis.  Leadership needs to be something we do and learn in practice as well as through more formal developmental processes. However, when learning and doing in practice as partially developed leaders, we also need to be extremely aware in what areas of leadership we are inadequate, and be covered for them by those who are adequate, and cover them for their weaknesses in turn. This suggests that good leadership is perhaps a team-based phenomenon. 

Any fit-for-purpose leadership development methodology needs to take account of the practicalities of contemporary organisational life - the interconnected and interdependent turbulence and risks of the global marketplace; the demand to design and develop disruptive business models to remain relevant; and the desperate battle to attract and retain top talent. Adding formalised leadership development programs to that already volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous mix is only going to increase cognitive overload and psychological overwhelm, risking burn out and break down in those trying to combine organisational performance with developmental excellence. 

To be relevant and useful in such an environment, today’s leadership models need to intersect with concepts from complexity science (e.g. networks, emergence), and be immediately applicable in practice.  The problem is that much of the mainstream conceptualisation of leadership, which still informs the majority of formal leadership development programs, was constructed under the modernist expectations that “good” leaders would be able to plan, design and build a stable, predictable and durable world.  These expectations are in need of serious revision as the processes of modernisation have produced a contemporary world better described through the language of fluidity, fragility and turbulence than stability, predictability and durability (as argued, for example, by Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, Kenneth Gergen, and Nicholas Nassim Taleb). In management literature, the term most employed is Warren Bennis’ VUCA acronym, later popularised by the US Military in their attempts to explain post Cold War conflict, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. 

Any reliance on the linear, plan-or-step-based models that characterised much traditional leadership modelling, such as step-based change or transformational leadership, is no longer going to be particularly useful.  What will be useful is uncovering patterns within the chaotic mish-mash of leadership theory that repeat fractal-like across different, seemingly contradictory or unconnected domains, levels and concepts of leadership. Of further interest is evidence of leadership that had a more experimental, sensemaking hue applied in an appropriately contextual manner to the challenge at hand - akin to evolutionary movements within complex adaptive systems. 

It is possible. There are numerous different models that can be imaginatively combined to create a holistic, educational and engaging leadership development program that can be taught in context and that participants can apply in practice in between theoretical, reflective and dialogic sessions. 

If you want to know more, and understand how we can create programs that achieve the above, please get in touch: [email protected]