Where have all the leaders gone?

Where have all the leaders gone?

Where have all the leaders gone?

When do you need a leader? That depends on what you think a leader is and does. Some people say a leader is vital when you are threatened, attacked or undecided about what to do next. These are important triggers for leadership but they make leaders sound rather reactive. Some people say we always need a leader. That makes the led sound feeble, and they are far from that. Mass protests, legal and illegal, flourish, whether for climate attention in London, social reform in Paris or escaping a death trap in areas of conflict like the Sudan.

Mulling over these points with our good friends Judit Csiszar and Stephen Brookes of Manchester University recently we all concluded that we didn’t quite know why leadership quality was wavering so badly. It’s not as though the led have suddenly acquired a lot more wisdom. Perhaps the move to replace ‘genuine’ leaders has been slow and, at any one stage, imperceptible. Perhaps the need for leadership has changed. Some further reflection leads to these thoughts.

The faithful Wiki defines leadership as Vision, Motivation, Serving, Empathy, Creativity, Thoroughness, Managing, Team Building, Taking risks, Improving. I think these are all how a leader leads rather than what that leader is for. As with so many definitions, a catalogue of system is no substitute for an understanding of purpose. Worse, someone who believes that by carrying out a multi-tasking role they are made an effective leader is deluding themselves. You measure leadership by the outcomes not the inputs.

Prime Minister May’s shuttle negotiating shambles makes the point. Endless pictures of an exhausted, haggard-looking, middle-aged lady at airport after airport tells us only one thing – she has little leadership skill. She is behaving like the courier’s assistant. You end up having more sympathy with the devoted, bearded bag-carrier who smiles along behind her all the time. She should be commanding, not carrying the cheese to load the mousetraps.

I’d say the same about Good Pope Francis. This saintly personality has endeared himself to the people (‘The People’s Pope’, perhaps) but has not grasped the Curia, the Vatican equivalent of a Parliament, firmly enough to deal with the big issues of the Church today. His predecessor muddies the scene and the dear Pope goes to wash the feet of the suffering. Extremely Christ-like and applauded to the echo but it’s the ruling body of the Church he must bring to heel. What is the priority for a religion today? Relevance, relevance, relevance.

I do not denigrate either of the above people. They are, I think, thoroughly decent, honestly intended, role models of diligence – somewhat missing the point about their leadership jobs. So here’s a thought about what leadership means in our volatile and unforgiving world. First, it means deciding what is the purpose of what we must do next. Consult, engage, debate, avoid referenda as a cheap abdication of responsibility. Listen, encourage, charm, without conceding your authority. Ponder, weigh, assess, without caring about being loved. At the end, establish the purpose.

The flag that preceded medieval kings into battle was not to show where the leader was. It was to show where he was going.

Second, decide, communicate, sell, seduce those you lead into putting their careers on the line to deliver. Third, let go, enable your cohort to execute the plan, retire to your caravan while they fight the battle. Sleep is your biggest asset now, besides your commanders’ needing you to let them do their jobs. The micromanaging leader isn’t a leader at all. S/he is a pain. Root them out.

Why isn’t this seemingly obvious understanding of leadership adopted?

Because we have become accustomed to ’keeping our options open’. Wise, up to a point; disastrous as long-term leadership policy. You only need an escape door when you think you will fail. And if you think it, you will fail. The law of self-fulfilling prophecies is relentless.

In our own small mentoring, coaching and training world we come up against a wide variety of clients. Most are totally reasonable, cooperative (after all, they want the improvement) and work with, not against, us. The occasional one exhibits a ‘never stop negotiating’ approach to life. They squeeze dry orange skins. They are the client’s we push back, even if we lose them as clients. The tussle we have often turns out to be some of the best mentoring they get.

That’s because we show them that leadership is not winning.

It is succeeding.