What is Leadership?

I have the good fortune to mentor two undergraduate students in the Arts and Science Program of McMaster University. One part of this role is to provide feedback and comments on the personal leadership philosophical statements they have created as part of their program. I thought their ideas and the comments they prompted were worth sharing. Below are my edited comments by theme.

A. Trust and Leadership. The theme of trust is important and a foundational leadership element. There is indeed risk in entrusting others but I believe we can manage those risks through wise and considered assessment on the character (trustworthiness) of others as well as seeing whether trust is rewarded with trustworthy behavior. Collaboration is highly dependent on trust whereas other situations that are more transactional require less trust in the specific person but often trust in the institutions and processes we operate in (for example purchasing a condo based on trust of the various legal and regulatory institutions).

I think there is a high beneficial effect when a “leader” places trust in another (“I trust your judgment”); in my experience this small risk is more than offset by the tremendous discretionary effort one gets from the other person because they are empowered/entrusted. The minority of cases where the trust is mis-placed is, in my view, more that compensated by the vast return on investment from the successes.

B. Vulnerability is an important idea, much more important than I realized a few ago in my own leadership. Most people are greatly swayed (for good and bad) by emotional factors and while this is sometimes abused by cynical leaders, in cases of genuine emotional connection it is indeed powerful. Combining thought (or idea) leadership with emotional leadership is perhaps the most potent combination of all; for example Steve Jobs fits largely into this category whereas Bill Gates was always more about the intellectual leadership dimension at Microsoft.

C. Multiple Leaders. It is important to consider the need for openness to changes in leadership over the course of an evolution of an organization or effort and even the need to consider various leaders in parallel exercising leadership on different aspects of an initiative that are aligned to their different types of leadership strengths. Many entrepreneurs do not see this basic fact and so become an anchor to their organization because their leadership skills or preferences no longer match the context and requirements. It is also hard for any of us to be great on every dimension of leadership and so through my career I have seeded my inner leadership teams with people I knew would supplement my areas of weakness and blind spots. Another way to think about the contextual nature of Leadership is the Situational Leadership model of Paul Hersey et al (Direct, Coach, Support, Delegate). This is another way to look at the need for flexibility in leadership approaches in any one person.

D. Non verbal. Verbal and non verbal signals are an important part of leadership. I find the work by a consulting firm Trompenaars Hampden-Turner that focuses on cross-cultural leadership issues in business a useful reference especially for non-verbal cues and aspects of traditions and symbols. They help organizations understand and more effectively operate when their work involves people from different cultures. (http://www.thtconsulting.com/Website/index.asp) I have used them in previous roles and they’ve written several books (e.g. Riding the Waves of Culture) etc.

E. Optimism. This is an element I consider indispensable — optimism and its cousin, endurance. Anything non-trivial requires an almost irrational ability to endure and to remain optimistic (not foolish). This is not the same as never seeing the problems (it is important for leaders to be seen as objective about the challenges and problems) but to nevertheless provide hope and a plan going forward.

F. Self-awareness. Self-awareness is a fundamental life skill and certainly a critical aspect of personal effectiveness and effectiveness in a leadership mode. I think it is good for each of us to look for ways to understand our explicit and implicit biases and our preferences for how we wish to interact with people and with ideas/data through various instruments (Myers Briggs etc.). One concept I have found useful is the Johari window developed by Luft and Ingram; see figure below

G. Ambidextrous and flexible leadership. I think it is important for leaders to try to access as many elements of their personality (assertiveness, collaboration etc) in a fluid manner. I think that we each need to strive for multi-dextrous abilities, that is, developing the ability to operate in a variety of leadership modes depending on the situation (the equivalent in Myers Briggs terms is one might be a strong I (introvert) yet be able to operate in the E (extrovert) mode when that is effective. Of course one must understand the important distinction between the ability to “adapt to situations” as you put it and authenticity. It is interesting to think of someone like T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia). He was seen as a great leader but also a great actor (which is often one and the same); many never truly felt they knew who he really was and more importantly there is a sense that Lawrence himself may have lost himself in his various guises (or at least came to dislike certain guises more than others).

H. The Chessboard Thinker Leader and the Proactive Risk Taking Leader. How much planning and anticipation is optimal? On the one hand, an extended period of thinking can let events take over and consign the leader to an analytical paralysis. Conversely quick action can take a leader down a foolhardy path. But ultimately a leader must lead through choice and decision and thus the possibility of vulnerability, criticism and failure. This entrepreneurial instinct is an effective mode of leadership. Juxtaposed against this is a more systematic and analytical assessment of the “chessboard” of moves, actions, and counter-actions by a leader in order to develop a highly effective strategy and plan of action. I think both modes are effective at different times and occasions by a leader.


One Comment on “What is Leadership?”

  1. Dr Denis says:

    One of ABE’s advices to Lincoln saying that : “be firm , but play nice” is the behavior that I appreciate more in term of leadership.


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