Considering Leadership?

This post is a shout out for more visible, frequent, and effective leadership; a 101 rallying cry for deliberate behavioural choices.

A place where leadership is considered a choice, not a job title.

If you are not sure what leadership is, or what it can be, or how you might develop your own, then consider this your leadership primer…

Article by:

Sharon McBroom

Let’s be honest, it is very easy to get switched off by the idea of leadership. 

We experience too many poor examples of it in our politics and our big institutions, it is distorted in our storytelling and the routes into leadership are often well hidden or protected, except for the select few.

But distributed, engaged leadership is more important now than it has ever been. 

By the end of this post, I would really like you to be crystal clear about three things:

  • What effective leadership really is
  • What else you need to consider
  • How you want to show up as a leader

The rapid changes to how we organise ourselves, and how we produce organisational or societal value, all demand a fresher, more personal type of leadership that isn’t reliant upon a job title or a winning smile. 

My position is that leadership is a behavioural choice, it is the way you show up, consistently, with the intention of creating a better, safer world for others. It doesn’t have to be permanent and certainly doesn’t have to be perfect; it is a craft to be refined with time, dedication and experience.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

6th US President, John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848)

So what makes an effective leader?

This is one of those questions that ranks up there with “what is art?” and “what is good taste?” There are few topics that have more written about them than leadership and here I am, simply adding to it.

What I do know is that effective leaders are like accomplished chefs  – it’s sometimes difficult to describe everything that they do in the kitchen but you know about it when you are served. However, before I start making you feel hungry, I want to provoke a bit of thinking about what leadership is not.

Cleaner or King – it makes no difference to me

Let’s consider the usual idea that a leader is the person in charge of an organisation, company or group. If you have the responsibility of running one of these structures then you are, by definition, the leader. Certainly this is a commonly held assumption and many books, websites and development programmes start from this position, implying that only people who can (or want) to get to the top can be leaders.

However, I have been in enough institutions and businesses around the world to recognise those that are truly being led as opposed to those that are simply being managed well. Equally, we have stories of remarkable leadership popping up in the most unexpected places, including in people who apparently have nobody to lead.

Which brings me on to my second observation: something remarkable happens when you uncouple the action of leadership behaviour from the positional power that comes with a job title. 

If you remove the assumption that leadership is about “being in charge of everything” and replace it with the idea of “leadership being a set of behaviours within a sphere of influence” then it suddenly feels very liberating. Whereas the first assumption creates a sense of pressure on the burgeoning leader (and provides everybody else with the option of abdicating responsibility) the second option gives us all the choice to make a difference.

Now it is certainly true that some people will have a relatively small sphere of influence compared to others, but that doesn’t really matter – it is a sphere; it extends all around you – to people working alongside you, for you and to whom you might report. 

And it can be stretched and expanded through clear and consistent leadership behaviours, irrespective of job title. Cleaner or King – it makes no difference to me. 

Going back to the cooking analogy, I truly believe you can learn to be a good cook if you want it enough; it might take practice, some commitment and a lot of passion but ultimately it’s a personal choice. Equally, don’t feel you have to be cooking all day, every day otherwise there’s a danger it stops being special. 

Remember, ultimately it is other people, not you, who will judge your cuisine and the kind of leader you are.

What else do I need to consider?

Hang on, I hear you cry, we can’t all be leaders – life will be too hectic and anarchic. Well, that’s true, so maybe leadership isn’t an all or nothing option and we can give ourselves a break. If it’s all about behaviours then maybe there are other things we can do well too; which leads me on to thinking about management and the less-considered idea of followership. 

I spend a fair amount of my time talking to people about what they do in their business. Usually the conversation gradually comes around to issues of management and leadership. “What’s the difference? How do I know if I am a leader or a manager?” they ask. 

Then we get into a conversation about respective mindsets, behaviours and aspirations and almost always end up with a “leadership good, management bad” kind of discussion. We talk about leaders having vision, passion, strategic intent (hooray!) whilst managers implement rules, process and controls (boo!). And to a degree, this is manifestly true. But, for me, management seems to be getting a bad rap whilst leadership is seen as the nirvana of achievement. It is like being generous on the sweet whilst cursing the sour – but, as far as I am concerned, for your cooking to flourish they both need to be respected equally.

I have worked with some amazing leaders who engender huge loyalty and passion in their organisations which then go on to achieve very little. I have also worked with some incredibly well resourced and hugely efficient multinational organisations that are suffering a death by a thousand cuts at the hands of management doctrine. Both desperately need to find the balance of vision and drive, process and plan in order for their respective metaphorical kitchens to flourish. 

And whilst we are on still the cooking theme, there is clearly a third element I want to mention. Any budding chef will tell you it is the ingredients that really matter and, for me, it is “followership” that forms this little culinary trinity.

“You cannot be a leader, and ask other people to follow you, unless you know how to follow, too.”

Sam Rayburn (1882 – 1961)
43rd speaker of the United States House of Representatives

Followership is a positive activity, with a skill set all of its own – without effective and constructive followership, a leader is left exposed, and a manager gets begrudging compliance. Encouraging and nurturing active followership is one of the secrets of your organisational kitchen – gathering people around you who are empowered, clear sighted and confident to positively challenge – providing the necessary energy, resources and diversity of thinking to make great things happen.

And do you know the great thing about this? The most effective people in any organisation are those who are happy and able to do all three – they lead when they need to, manage the outcomes effectively and have the awareness and humility to know when following really well is what is needed. 

In the pursuit of our own ego-driven aspirations, we sometimes forget that truly sustainable, authentic leadership lies closer to home.

So whilst we do tend to focus on the chef for all their culinary brilliance, I would suggest we only really grow as individuals and organisations when we truly appreciate the proper balance of flavours, and the true value of the quality ingredients around us.

How do I want to show up as a leader?

The study of “leadership” is littered with “styles”; transactional, servant, charismatic, dictatorial, benevolent, good king, mother, proxy, warrior, change agent…the list goes on. In fact if you spend a bit of time researching this stuff you could be forgiven for thinking that “doing” leadership is like shopping for clothes. Wander around some fancy department store; choose a couple of tops and some trousers that you think fit and away you go, a ready made leadership wardrobe.

“The task of the leader is to get people from where they are to where they have not been.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger (1923 – 2023)

Indeed, the popularity of different leadership styles has waxed and waned with the same inevitability as cheesecloth shirts and puffball skirts. In one moment, we are desperately seeking to model the latest in hard-nosed, corporate pseudo-strategy, the next we are leading with the philosophy of Winnie the Pooh or wondering who has moved our cheese.

So what can we take from this charity shop of leadership ideas that might actually be a little gem? 

My shopping guide would probably be something like:

  1. Appreciate who you are and choose clothes that emphasise your best bits
  2. Get the basics right – wear great underwear every day
  3. Have a couple of classic outfits that will never go out of fashion
  4. Have something sparkly for when you need it.

And for me, the same is true in leadership development:

  1. Value and appreciate who you are with a vibrant confidence that is tempered by just enough humility to stop it tipping into arrogance
  2. Practice leading every day, regardless of whether anybody needs to be impressed
  3. Give yourself some options that you know you can carry off even on a bad day
  4. Accept the fact that leading requires you to put yourself out there every now and again.

The first two of these are probably the hardest; they require honest self-awareness and a certain kind of discipline. Which is why a lot of leadership development work starts with “leading self” – the fundamental, sustainable platform for leading others or leading organisations. 

But let’s consider points 3 and 4 – these are where leadership styles really come into play. These are the behaviours that we can adopt, copy, research and practice until they feel entirely comfortable or just fit well enough to get us through.

Positive leadership styles to work with

I usually work with seven leadership styles that I think are particularly positive and useful. I don’t expect anybody to be equally proficient at using all of them. Sustaining just two or three effectively would be good going but it is the knowing when to flex that is critical. 

Seven leadership styles worth considering:

  • Charismatic – effective and charming, this style can please the crowds as long as there is substance to back it up.
  • Collaborative – a great favourite for some but requiring energy, this leadership style is all about inclusivity and consensus. If over-used it can appear timid and bland.
  • Transactional – getting the deal done and being clear about what is expected in return for appropriate reward, this style if efficient and simple, if sometimes lacking in emotional sophistication.
  • Transformational – a dynamic force for change that can produce incredible results but often at a high price, this leadership style is high energy and turbulent.
  • Quiet – leading by example, this style is strong on integrity and role modelling with a close cohort but sometimes might be just too discreet.
  • Servant – this style is all about serving without being servile; it is a style that excels in developing those that follow but needs confidence and assertiveness to pull it off.
  • Situational – the ability to understand the needs of the current circumstances and lead in the most appropriate and effective manner; great in a crisis but sometimes misinterpreted by others as inconsistency.

Of course, each of these styles, taken in isolation, is a caricature; a researcher’s way of making sense of, and then labelling, some broad characteristics. 

I don’t want to force anybody into a fashion-conscious, charity shop-inspired crisis of what not to wear. It is simply an invitation to look at what leadership styles are available on the rails, then mix and match to create a distinctive wardrobe that is remarkable, useful, flexible and undeniably you.

Be clear in yourself about these three things

Leadership is a massive topic; there is a lot written about it and a lot to put you off. But we need to experience more leadership in daily action, to surprise us, to impress us, to make a difference. And it starts with you and the behavioural choices you make:

  • Understand that your leadership is a craft, requiring discipline, practice and passion. You will get it wrong and you will learn from it. It is your consistent leadership behaviours, and the reputation that you build around them, that sustain you.
  • Leadership is not a fixed point, it is a choice – and there will be times when others are best placed to drive. Your leadership act is to create the context for them to thrive, by managing the process or following with the same dedication and passion as if you were leading.
  • Find the leadership flex that works for you; root your leadership in a recognisable, believable core but appreciate that different groups need you to shape their context in ways that are meaningful to them; it’s not all about you, so find some leadership options that help and inspire them.

When you want to find out more about the work we are doing all over the world, building outstanding leadership cultures and high performance teams, please do get in touch.

We are ready when you are.

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