This article was written by Karen Drury, consultant with Maven International (UK) Ltd.
“The first myth of management is that it exists. The second myth of management is that success equals skill.”
We’ve heard a lot about leadership in the past months – the death of Margaret Thatcher, unrest over Cameron’s leadership and of course, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.
I’ve never been fully comfortable with a concept of leadership which is so strikingly male, Western and seemingly so simple in theory but so difficult in practice. And there are so many models – which to choose?
Looking back over leadership models in the management literature, many were constructed more than 100 years ago and have gone in and out of favour over the century. This might indicate that if your favourite is out of fashion now, it will probably re-emerge in a few years. Leadership has looked at a variety of traits and behaviours, but we’ve also had contextual leadership, contingency leadership, relational leadership, transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and spiritual and servant-leadership.
Looking at the plethora of models, one thing strikes me - while many of these models are different, they generally treat “leaders” as a unified consistency, or one group of people. This seems unlikely, and a study by Hay in 2004 indicates that leaders don’t come in one size only, but may need to employ different types of leadership depending on where they are in the organisation.
If Hay is right, this might make all leadership theories too broad for practical use.
My second area of doubt is whether leadership automatically leads to success – or if other things contribute? Theories which intuitively sound robust in the pages of an airport blockbuster may wither in the uncertainty of the real world.
Let’s take the popular prescription that a leader needs to be empathetic and considerate to employees, as described in Jim Collins’ Good to Great, Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind and Stephen Covey’s Principle-Centered Leadership – to name but a few.
In the psychological jargon, empathy and consideration fall under the banner of “agreeableness”. Agreeable people want to build and maintain relationships, are honest and straightforward, are altruistic and modest. As a result, they are potentially less likely to be competitive.
Turning to some real life examples, it’s unlikely that you would say that a lack of competitiveness characterises Sir Alex Ferguson or Steve Jobs – or indeed, an over-abundance of agreeableness. SAF, famous for his temper and abuse when displeased, took Manchester United to 38 trophies including 13 Premier League titles. But as David Beckham has been quoted as saying “the fear of getting the ‘hairdryer’ was one reason we all played so well.”
Steve Jobs, revered by some as an American business icon, was also noted for his mercurial management style, prone to calling his employees “dumb” when he didn’t like their ideas. His combativeness against competitors was also the stuff from which legends are made.
Were these people successful? Yes they were. Did they sound empathetic and agreeable? Not so much.
Might there be other people with the same traits as SAF and Mr Jobs who are not successful? Almost certainly. So is it leadership that makes the difference or some chance combination of context, leader, and resources? It’s a complicated area.
Sceptics have argued that in short, it is easier to put organisational performance down to “leadership” than to take into consideration all the complex phenomena that could be involved. Scholar James Meindl, with Sanford Ehrlich and Janet Dukerich coined the phrase “the romance of leadership” suggesting that perceptions of leadership are just that – the perceptions of followers, not objective measures of leadership. This evaluation of leadership says much about the schemas of followers as well as the behaviours of the “leaders”.
And finally, as a consultant, trainer and coach, it’s not escaped my notice that anything with “leadership” in the title commands a premium price. I wonder how much this was down to rhetoric and how much was about a real difference between management and leadership.
Supporting this, a number of qualitative diary studies indicate that while senior leaders may talk leadership, they do management. Ask any leader to tell you what they do, day to day, and description becomes almost impossible. So is leadership more to do with identity than anything else?
The identity of a leader, after all, is something to be aspired to. Leadership - and those who provide services to leaders – has elevated status, and is valued, often to the denigration of the managerial label. I have recently heard middle management described as the “permafrost” in change programmes.
This is in part what makes the role of the leader so desirable – that it’s NOT management.
And in the midst of recession, the position of the leader occupies a place of tension between the discourse of vision, idealism and hearts and minds – and the need to cut costs. Change, particularly in increased standardisation and centralisation to save costs and increase control, appears to me to simply strengthen the bureaucracy which leadership is supposed to loosen and do away with.
But what do you think? Is leadership real or rhetoric? What is the difference between a leader and success in one situation and the same leader and failure in another?