We get the Leaders we deserve?

If we accept that successful leadership helps people to take responsibility, to grow and develop, and to make hard choices, then, by definition, when people remain reliant and dependent on others providing answers, guidance and direction, and are content to let others do the work, then the leadership we get is, at best, sub-optimal.

People like to elect or hire leaders to provide them with the right answers, and not to confront them with challenging questions or difficult choices.  But, the great leaders do just that. They do not resort to using their authority to ‘implement their own answers’.  They may set out the vision, they may indicate the general direction we need to follow, but they will also put responsibility back in the hands of people to come up with the answers that are right for them and to be implemented at a pace that is tolerable.

Indeed, the more challenging the problem and the more risks involved, the more that people need to face up to the adaptive pressures and the choices that they face.  And, paradoxically, it is under these extreme situations that leaders come under the most pressure to provide the right answers.

The danger in these situations is that some leaders will too easily be seduced by this unrealistic expectation, and will give people what they want (but not what they need).  In doing this, the leader is often encouraged to resort to more ‘traditional’ styles (e.g. directive, charismatic, authoritarian) and, in doing so, we all suffer.  We do not tap into diversity of ideas, we remain stuck in a culture of dependence, and we protect ourselves from blame. Of course this is a high risk situation for all parties. If the leader does not deliver (and in situations where it is all down to them they rarely do), opinion will soon build to remove them. Problems are not solved, people do not learn, and nothing changes.

The best leaders do not fall for this seduction.  They are prepared to work through the conflict, resistance, instability, and in some cases, dangers, that are associated with adaptive change. They do not allow people to take the easy way out. Instead they make it very clear that all change involves disruption, and they are not afraid to disturb people – because leadership requires disturbing people.

Of course, there is no guarantee that all leaders who adopt such courageous positions will succeed.  Leading is dangerous, and many leaders are cast aside, rejected, voted out, sacked, or in extreme cases, assassinated.  But, if no-one steps forward to remind people of their responsibility, to make clear the adaptive work that will be required to make change happen, then no-one wins.

Ronald Heifetz in his book “Leadership without Easy Answers”, outlines five strategic principles of leadership that are excellent reminders for all leaders

  1. Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundle the issues involved
  2. Keep the level of distress within tolerable limits for doing adaptive work (“keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel“)
  3. Identify the issues that engage the most attention and counteract avoidance mechanisms such as denial, scapegoating, pretending the problem is technical, or attacking individuals rather than issues
  4. Allow people to take responsibility for the problem, but at a rate they can handle
  5. Protect those who raise hard questions, generate distress, and challenge people to rethink the issues at stake.

We will only ever get the types of leaders we deserve if we expect them to deliver all the answers, to make the changes we know are needed, while not causing ourselves any disruption, and if we think that adaptive change is possible without taking responsibility and putting in the work to make it happen.

If you would like to discuss how you can become a more effective and courageous leader, a leader who is able to inspire, influence and gain internal commitment, please get in touch by submitting your details through the Contact Us page. I will be only too glad to discuss with you.

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12 thoughts on “We get the Leaders we deserve?

  1. At the Chrysalis Group we see passion at the heart of everything, especially when it comes to leadership.

    In this sense a leader is not someone who wants merely to take responsibility for this or that – but they are driven to do this because they feel so strongly about it.

    This can (and often does) manifest itself in that person trying to do everything on their own unless they are surrounded by equally passionate people who actively muster behind the leader to support him/her or unless they naturally are able to engage those around them.

    This is generally where politics and the human element raises its head and turns a calm, theoretical situation into the mine-field that leadership really is out there! Here leadership is about understanding and managing the ‘people’ aspects!

    Where leaders can really ‘lead’ is, as you suggest, empowering people by allowing them to find and focus their passions into the common goal. I often think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at these moments – such a diverse group of souls one could ever imagine who are on a journey together. Here Leadership is keeping people focused on the direction and keeping them together.

    This is no easy task and can be found in many different styles and people – ultimately where it works is when leaders are passionate about realising their goals and helping others who share this with them along the journey.

    I find if you are truly passionate achieving something then levels of distress and change are not issues at all – you will do what ever is necessary because failure is not an option. Great leaders can muster this level of personal sacrifice in themselves and others.

    This is the central element that must be present – something that, as you say, should be challenged if the person at the helm does not have.

    Yet these great leadership qualities seem more and more to be something of the past – because the focus for the last few decades has been managing money alone – the focus has shifted from driving people to profits and brought with it a different species of leaders.

    This is a great article Louis, very thought provoking! We obviously share the same basic approach just with a different core focus.

    Loving the Blog – keep me posted of new articles.

  2. Fantastic response Craig. I love the insight you bring to this. Your observation that we have a species of leaders who are focused on profit – and generally judged on short-term results – is spot on. Thanks for your contribution.

  3. This raises some really important points. As you say, we often hire leaders (and indeed consultants) expecting them to be the expert who will come up with the answers, and it is tempting for people new in post to want to oblige and so prove they were the right person to hire. However, being a leader often involves having the courage to say ‘I don’t have the answer, but I know we can work this out together’.

  4. Louis: Leadership represents many things, but the root of the ability to truly lead is an alignment of vision, values, intellectual capacity and humanity that is transformative. True leaders translate the complex into the simple with facility and they also have a capacity for understanding, knowing and enabling the best in others; seeing solutions, being able to set a vision when others are deterred by the haze of changes, challenge, chaos or multiple opportunities facing them.

    I do not think that experts, even the best experts are necessarily leaders. They may be what we term leaders in their field, but this refers only to their abilty to apply their knowledge and experience in a particular area. While we all want someone to come in and resume us from the problems or challenges we face, and to an extend a top expert in a field can often come in and problem solve; the leader has a complimentary but different skills set that is inspired and inspires others. A skill set that sees the opportunities where other on not. A leader has the courage to make the impossible possible by optmizing, humanizing and monetizing potential so that the fire of human passion, purpose and potential is not only engaged by transformed into a power for the greatest good. Idealistic? Perhaps. However, the transformational nature of true leadership is timeless as is the formula for success-create value for others. They work together, they work in unison to empower, engage and advance the human condition.

    Best, Irene

    • Wow. Thanks for giving your response such thorough treatment. Idealistic? Possibly. Aspirational? Yes. I am about to post my next instalment – watch out for it as I guess it touches on similar themes. Thanks once again.

  5. Pingback: Lazy Leadership | Gyro Consulting Services

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