Whenever I scroll through the updates on Linked In, I think to myself that one day I will be surprised. On that day, there will be no discussion about ‘leadership’. Every aspect of this omnipresent digital subject is daily being addressed. One week, a couple of years ago now, I remember that on Monday leadership was most definitely innate, you were born a leader. By Wednesday, my home page was filled with how leaders were made not born and by Friday someone had written that asking whether leaders were born or made was the wrong question to ask! Tell me confidentially, just between us, are you as confused as I am?
The only time I thought I had stumbled across real clarity on the subject was when one of the more imaginative and enjoyable comments on leadership said something along the lines of “Leadership? It’s about not being a d*ck”.
As a youngster, I always thought it was about being out in front. I thought a leader was the person who inspired others to act. The leaders I read about as a child were people like Scott who realised his men could go no further and badly needed rest, but he also knew that to sit for any length of time meant certain death. He told the team that they could sleep and staying awake himself, after only a minute he woke them again and told them they had had an hour’s sleep. Then, in later life, I read about all the mistake and poor decisions that had been made, especially at the planning stages of the last expedition and another leaf in my childhood garden, crumbled and crimson, fell to the ground. Arguably the same could be said of Churchill. His involvement in Gallipoli and Norway show a side to the man that distinctly lacked good leadership, but, as a school boy, sketching Spitfires in a Latin text book, I only knew that the man in the pin-stripe suit, carrying the Tommy Gun had won the war.
But I suppose, that’s the thing about leadership. There is an assumption that whenever we talk about it, the word, ‘good’, seems to slip into the same sentence, really without our knowing. General Patton said, “Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way”. I think to be a leader is often just as much about making a decision when no one else wants to as it is about making the right one. Sometimes you make the wrong choice, but we don’t live in a sort of ‘Sliding Doors’ world where the relationship between choices and results can be assessed in a parallel universe, so perhaps sadly leadership appears to be inextricably linked to achievement, to results. In most cases, when discussing an episode that required robust leadership, our reflections tend to focus on the outcome rather than all of the mini episodes that made up the situation in its entirety.
Now I see a different reality. Leadership is no more solely about inspiring or motivating as it is about galvanising teams, being empathetic or whipping people into action. It’s actually got a lot to do with context, environments, self-awareness and the collective strands to the whole situation. It’s about being the right person in the right environment, for the very same talent demonstrated by Churchill, stubbornness, was key to his successes and failures in equal measure. He refused to back down in the Dardanelles, being described as ‘Pig-headed’, whose can-do attitude led him to close his ears to many suggestions from others, especially the Head of the Navy. The result was a disaster. But that very same stubbornness, coupled with his self-belief, knowledge of history, and ability to understand the limitations of Nazi Germany, allowed him, when aligned to his remarkable way of speaking, ability to transcend boundaries of class and nation, and progressive sense of personal branding, to lead Britain to ultimate success, against the odds. Imagine however what we would be saying about his leadership had we lost, if indeed war can be reduced to a simple case of winners and losers.
The need to acknowledge context can again be appreciated when reading, or hearing, one of the many quotations about leadership. Napoleon said, “A leader is a dealer in hope”. Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘If’, is often quoted within lessons on leadership expressing the need to keep our heads when all around us are looking theirs. Please don’t worry, I am not going to expand this piece further with endless examples. I love this poem and I like quotations such as Napoleon’s. However, without context we do not know why Napoleon said what he said or what was happening at that time. If we did, then I am sure the line’s relevance to a specific situation would allow us to see that without a point of reference these words create little more than interest or poetic admiration to today’s leaders. We cannot allow for a situation where leadership principles are dictated without first understanding the situation. There are many organisations, and indeed situations, that require leadership but neither in the face of adversity nor indeed in any stressful circumstance. For them, the lines, “If you can keep your head when all about you. Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”, are irrelevant, however beautiful, however emotional. Sense can only be achieved through an appreciation of context and environments. With these three in place Kipling’s lines will absolutely resonate to Wimbledon tennis players, even if they have never heard of Leander Starr Jameson.
I fear that in our quest to define it at its best, leadership today is being suffocated by conformity. The seemingly endless stream of discussion on the subject channels generally in the same direction, much of the time towards telling us how to be good leaders. Perhaps it happens because of our need to box things in to easily recognisable and familiar packaging or maybe the age of litigation has forced us to hide behind that which is accepted as normal within the mainstream. There definitely exists a fear to engage in ideas that have not come from well-known and established stables as indeed there is apathy to engage with people who don’t possess the well-known qualifications or who have learned their subject from any bohemian route such as, experience. Whatever the reason why, I suggest we have developed a taste for uniformity where to be a good leader you should behave in a particular way, adhere to set criteria of values, establish a tried and tested environment and strive to achieve, bringing your team with you. The age of the ‘Template Titan’ is upon us and many a failure has its roots in doing the same old thing in the same old style. As Emmerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
Have we got ourselves into a bit of a rut? We mould someone to become something, because we decide who has, and who has not got, leadership potential. We parachute a ‘leader’ into a situation and then we cannot understand when things continue to go wrong. A sculptor can take a lump of rock and decide to create something specific. Conversely, someone else can lie in the grass and try to find the shape that exists in the cloud. We might therefore, try looking beyond what is presented before us and try to better understand what sort of a leader we are working with. There are many different types of leader from charismatic, motivational, inspirational, stable, dynamic, process-driven, creative, goal-focused, democratic, autocratic, facilitative and transactional to name a few. Think where else you see this word, ‘Lead’…. Personally, I think as a result of owning a sometimes, (often), disobedient Cocker Spaniel, I think of the leash. Sometimes I pull, sometimes she pulls me, sometimes she wraps the string around my legs and I almost fall over and sometimes she wriggles free and we don’t bother using it. Before trying to understand what sort of a leader one is I think it is vital to understand what sort of a person you are. I recall reading somewhere in a Rudyard Kipling book that no man should lead anyone else until they can lead themselves. I am a firm believer in this and would suggest that leadership of others can only follow ‘leadership of the self’.
Good leadership, i.e. appropriate leadership to a specific situation, is not a lockstep right. It is a truly meritocratically given phenomenon. If we accept this, then it follows that good leaders transcend age, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation and religion. In other words, leadership could well be one of the greatest examples of diversity and inclusion at work where success is truly based on an individual’s abilities and not situation. Again, it is vital that aspiring leaders, as well as those already in leadership roles, are markedly more self-aware than others.
Often, the true test of a leader is at a time of increased stress and negativity, a time when the more one is immersed within a situation the more attached one becomes to their innate self. When we need to be effective leaders we may indeed practice the things we have been taught, but very many of us will find ourselves delving into our subconscious arsenal where we will find our natural and practised abilities and those that we feel most comfortable utilising. When we use our natural abilities, our talents, this is when we potentially see the greatest results. Those who are being led, will often say that their preferred leaders are those who are aware of their authentic selves. These leaders, of people, are the ones who convey an air of assurance to their teams when needed, for those under their command have insight into how their leader will behave, what values they hold, and what sort of an environment they wish to shape.
“Knowing others is intelligence; Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power”. Lao Tse 531 AD.
I do not, however, believe self-awareness should be the preserve of current or next generation leaders alone. Anyone, at any time, can find themselves in a situation demanding leadership and history is filled with examples where the most unlikely or the least expected person has risen to the demand for leadership. I am sure we all have our own examples where a situation has been saved by someone who for the rest of the time sits quietly off stage. Organisational structures are becoming increasingly democratic. Hierarchies are moving from the pyramid to the flat-line and as a result, inclusive leadership, where every employee feels they have a stake in their organisation’s development, will be key to progress and loyalty being achieved. History also provides evidence where leaders themselves have rocked the boat by not sticking to how it’s always been done. I was speaking to an academic member of the Sandhurst directing staff, where the army trains it’s next generation leaders, a few months ago. I mentioned my thoughts that at the end of the day, no matter how much leadership training you give someone, often, in the darkest moments, the greatest leaders will find great comfort in the pursuit of behaviours that come naturally to them. As I was speaking to someone who worked within a military environment, I said “Look at David Stirling, or William Slim”, choosing two soldiers. “Personally, I rate these as effective leaders, and these are people who tore up the rule book, people who relied upon their own talents to achieve”. The Professor smiled and informed me that only last night he had given a speech where he had asked, “Where are the mavericks?”. Maverick leaders exist within all sectors and industries. They are people who know who they are, they know what they value, they know why they operate, and they aren’t afraid to stick to their chosen path no matter how hard the going or to challenge accepted thinking. Many of these maverick leaders have another thing in common, they didn’t do so well at school. Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, David Karp, Al Gore, Steve Jobs, and Ho Chi Minh all either left school early or only achieved mediocre results. It seems that time and again talent is a precursor to skills and in-turn success.
I asked Chris Roebuck, Visiting Professor of Transformational Leadership at Cass Business School, his thoughts. He said; “To be successful in our modern world we need to engage other people by being a person they genuinely want to work with. Never forget beauty is in the eye of the beholder not the giver. We will never understand how others see us until we truly understand ourselves. Too often we only see the part of ourselves we want to see, they see it all. Until we do the same we will never truly reach our true potential either professionally or personally”.
In conclusion, I believe there are two aspects to leadership that we are failing to fully address within the more popular narratives. Firstly, we should be more willing to appreciate the irony that by herding people through predetermined leadership training and through the consumption of the many books on effective leadership, we are discouraging some aspects of leadership to flourish. I need to be clear that where an organisation believes its leadership training works perfectly that’s okay but sticking to the same thing for no particular reason other than habit is not a good thing. Secondly, I strongly believe that before someone is allowed to become the leader of any other person they need to be fully in command of themselves. By this I mean that they should be clear about their own intrinsic motivation, their values, the environments that work for them, their own vision and mission in life and how they relate to other people. Jung spoke of an ‘inner voice’, a vocation if you like, manifested in our lives as a call to act in a predetermined manner. Each and every one of us, so the ancient Greeks believed, had to succumb to the pull of their ‘dæmon’ if we are to achieve true happiness. What was written on the Temple of Apollo, ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’, an instruction to learn what it is that you must become, this is what to-day we refer to as ‘self-actualization’ and, when discovered, is a most powerful force that will endure throughout a lifetime far longer than the latest trend. Knowing who you are, in what direction you’re headed and how you will get there will markedly increase how authentic people perceive you to be. Your followers will find comfort and reassurance seeing your stability of purpose and above all robustly seeing you to be the right person for the right role.
For information about courses in ‘Leadership of the Self’, please contact Nicholas at email@example.com