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
- Diagnose the situation in light of the values at stake, and unbundle the issues involved
- Keep the level of distress within tolerable limits for doing adaptive work (“keep the heat up without blowing up the vessel“)
- 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
- Allow people to take responsibility for the problem, but at a rate they can handle
- 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.