What does good leadership actually look like?
If there’s one thing we can guarantee. No one has the answer.
If you’ve ever found yourself in a leadership position, there’s no doubt you’ve asked yourself ‘am I good enough?‘.
Whacking ‘leadership’ into Google Scholar today gets you 5,050,000 results.
There’s no end in sight to the enduring problem of ‘leadership’
The truth is no one has the definitive answer about what leadership is, how it works best, or even the line between leadership and management. Everything is open for debate.
What we can probably agree on is that some kind of unifying presence is helpful for most human undertakings. Without some kind of agreed terms most groups of people (or animals) would behave badly.
However, those millions of articles have at least developed the idea that leadership should reflect the needs of the particular organisational context. This began by recognising the influence of followers and extended to the changeable nature of the goals, work, industry, or technology employed.
Primarily, the key consideration is how “knowable” your operation is. The more certain and permanent your operation the more ‘control’ you might have. If you operate in a technological firestorm or grapple with very ‘human’ work you probably need to be able to change method or direction quite quickly.
Clearly, no one organisation operates in a vacuum and the world is increasingly complex and changeable. Leadership may simply be the awareness of and adaptation to what is changing around us. An awareness of being in the middle of history. Management theories developed in the great age of industrialisation should give way to leadership and the awareness of context.
The good, the bad and the big bucks.
While there may not be a definitive approach to leadership, the contingency model does encourage us to be mindful leaders. That means understanding the connections between the work, processes and practices – and taking a mindful approach to leading and managing our people.
Leaders, therefore, make a choice. Even if it’s the choice to not choose. Any which way, leadership approaches say something about our attitudes to our people and work. Culture carries intended and unintended meaning. The wrong approach can work in opposition to stated goals and values – and on some level, people always get that.
Outcomes will ultimately indicate good and bad leadership decisions. If success for the group is achieving the right goals in the right way at the right costs, bad leadership must at least contribute to:
- Goals that are unclear or unmet,
- Tasks that are unclear or unmet,
- Performance levels that are unclear or unmet.
Of course, leadership decisions are made organisation-wide and at all levels. Leadership decisions are made by individuals, some by groups.
Poor strategic decisions are liable to failure – good fortune and divine intervention notwithstanding. Leadership decisions set the tone and direction of the journey: the why. These decisions affect everything else.
Leadership is also affected by everything else. There’s a lot of change to navigate. Leaders need to be clever and so our expectations are therefore high. Individual leaders are paid well to not be bad leaders.
This begs the question as to why so many leaders are bad leaders.
One potential answer is the confusion of leadership and management – and a lack of understanding about leadership skill sets. Many leaders emerge through good performance as managers or workers – but without leadership ability. Leadership may be under-rated as a profession. Doctors no longer run hospitals. Top performers may not make top leaders.
Leaders decide the purpose, and then the hard work of carrying out the work begins. Resourcing and tracking work is time-bound: the when. Measuring progress and sequencing tasks is a management function.
Ultimately organisations are like plants.
Each organisation takes resources from the world – transforms them – and returns them to the world in another form.
Nowadays, organisations are vulnerable to disruptions and changes anywhere along global supply chains and in consumer markets. There are a lot of ‘interactions’ with the world and the world is undeniably more interactive than ever before. Leaders looking for control are challenged by a world where everyone is constantly in everybody else’s business. The only constant is change. No one is in control. But then leadership, arguably, is not ever about control.
Inside the organisation, the role of leadership is to make sure that when a change of direction is required, the people will follow. To successfully adapt, the system must maintain alignment. Organisational agility is hampered by any opposition within the system – people, processes, or practices.
What good leadership looks like
Good leadership is about achieving purpose.
Leadership requires communi-cation: the creation and maintenance of community through clarity of purpose and a shared identity.
Internal cohesion enables collective responsiveness to changes in the environment. Maintaining awareness of external changes and building cohesion are both built on communication: listening and understanding.
Management is essential to pursuing objectives and tracking progress. Where leadership sets the direction, management drives the organisation to reach it. These are technically different skillsets for different functions.
Many positions encompass both leadership and management functions. These are two very different hats. Understanding the difference could be a key driver for success.
Whatever approach to leadership or management one takes, internal consistency is important. Decisions at all levels and across organisations should be aligned to build cohesion and agility.
Leadership and management decisions reflect the values and attitudes of the decision-makers towards people, processes and practices. Positive organisational culture (the how) can be guided by mindful leadership.
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