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A busy task to follow the leadership debate

LEADERSHIP is the “in” topic these days around the business school agenda and in many enterprise staff development programs. In some ways it has claimed priority over management as the necessary ingredient for performance success.

Thus we see a plethora of courses proposing to teach leadership and put people in positions of leadership in simulated work group experiences frequently related to adventure-type exercises. However, all this activity raises issues and questions in my mind when considering results.

The topic, of course, is not new and academics and practitioners have been engaged in discussions, research and publications in the area for the past 100 years or so. While all this effort has not shed a lot of light or agreement on leadership in regard to what it is and whether or how it can be taught, the current wave of interest and activity presumes that we have most of the answers. As in a number of similar debates that try to explain human behaviour, the nature versus nurture argument rages on.

While there is probably some measure of agreement that leadership skill is partly nature related and partly nurture related, the proportion of each that makes for successful leadership is certainly not clear.

A common feature of the nurture approach that puts people through courses on leadership is the emphasis on team work. That is, a leader is one who can obtain cooperation and consensus from team members. Thus, keeping people satisfied and comfortable and in agreement is touted to be a prime requirement of leadership.

This approach seems to me to be paradoxical, especially when we are considering the chief executive officer’s position in an organisation. Such a leader surely needs to be resourceful, innovative, catalytic and focused on a vision for his or her enterprise.

What may be happening in leadership programs in this push towards conformity and agreement, and the notion that conflict should be avoided or at least “managed”, is that we are producing a class of leaders who, when they reach the top, tend to operate at the mediocre level – where the process becomes more important than the task.

Process is important but not at the expense of task at the CEO level. Aiming at task completion inevitably involves ruffling feathers and making decisions that go against what many in group situations will find confronting and uncomfortable.

I think we need top leaders who can make their own decisions based on their knowledge and skill and not based on pandering to the common denominator of the group. Of course, they need to be able to source all necessary information related to the decision, but they must be prepared to take the tough stand if they think that is for the best and be able to communicate to people why that tough stand has been taken. They also must have the internal fortitude to live with any negative consequences that occur.

Another fact often ignored is that most people in management and supervisory positions in organisations are both leaders and followers. They are also members of a peer group. We have different expectations of the same person when he or she is wearing the leader hat, the follower hat or the peer hat.

Leadership training at these levels must recognise these three roles and work at developing skills that enable people to be effective at each, not just leadership. Doing this requires a far more sophisticated approach than normally applies.

Leadership training may produce mediocre top leaders and confuse those who occupy the roles of leader as well as follower. Many successful top leaders have never been trained as leaders and many trainers of leaders have never led anything of substance in their lives. It is no wonder the results of leadership development raise many questions.

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