Leaders are Defined by Their Group
Over the last 30 years, I have worked in different environments: in multiple countries from South Africa to Oman, from the United States to Serbia, in several jobs from a barman to an economist, from an order picker to a project manager, and with over 100 different employers from being self-employed to working for the national statistics office, from working for a family-owned restaurant to working for the IMF.
In each case, I have worked with different leaders with different styles, approaches, leadership traits and so on. It seems that there does not exist a one-size-fits-all leader. Leadership styles have varied from bossy to delegating responsibility to laisser faire. Some leaders are very engaged with the group they lead, while others keep them at a distance. The working environment, the ownership structure, public or private sector, the local social-cultural environment, and the personality traits all seem to feed into how leaders lead. And how effective they are.
There are many theories about leadership, wherein leaders are seen from the prism of the impact that they have on their followers. A cursory look at leadership theories shows how they have evolved over time. I will highlight some schools of thought:
- "Great Man" – leaders are born with essential character traits, such as charisma, confidence, intelligence and social skills, whereby they are preordained to be leaders
- Trait – some people are born with key qualities and traits that befit the role of a leader
- Contingency – the environment defines which style of leadership is most appropriate for a particular situation
- Situational – leaders choose the best course of action based upon situational variables
- Behavioral – leaders are made rather than born
- Participative – ideal leadership style is one that takes the input of others into account
- Transactional (exchange) – leaders are effective through a mutual reinforcing environment, followers are motivated to fulfil tasks through rewards and punishments
- Transformational – interaction between the leader and followers lead to a sound relationship which improves trust and will lead to increased motivation of both parties.
At the same time, a plethora of guru books have been published over the decades, either by celebrated leaders sharing their secrets behind their proficiency or by academics sharing collected research or by coach-experts sharing the built-up experience. These guides to leadership often answer overarching questions and/or provide concise and digestible key messages, substantiated with real world illustrations. Some examples:
- John C. Maxwell, author of ‘The Leadership Handbook’, states, “A leader never has to recover from a good start." His book illustrates that the most effective leaders across a wide variety of spectrums have achieved their success by beginning their journey with a question few bother to ask: How do I lead myself?
- David Welch, author of the ‘Leadership Skills Handbook’ asks the questions “What is leadership? What are the qualities of a leader? Are leaders born or made?” He proclaims that nobody is born a leader but may become one, and uses the book to explain the tools and skills needed to be an effective leader.
- In his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ Stephen R. Covey elaborates on these habits: (1) Be proactive (2) Begin with the end in mind (3) Put first things first (4) Think win/win (5) Seek first to understand, then to be understood (6) Synergize (7) Sharpen the saw
What you can derive from these points-of-view is that the questions and answers on defining a good leader can be pooled from a wide variety of expert views. Good leaders can be defined in how they enable their followers to achieve objectives. Which traits, skills, tools, qualities, et cetera do they have to make things happen? The followers will react favorably or dissatisfactory on how competently the leader acts with these issues in mind.
While working as an Advisor for the IMF in the Western Balkans, I have become more intrigued in leadership approaches. Especially because I have been working on similar implementation objectives across various countries. One thing that stands out is that a great amount of decision-making is often deferred to the (most) senior management – on operational, procedural, and sometimes even technical level. From this, I have observed to a lesser or greater extent that decision-making can become tedious and clogged up, senior managers need to be masters of many proficiencies, a discord between the operational staff and the management can develop in time, or that trust can be gradually eroded over time. A more peculiar form of micromanagement that I have seen was an instance where a minister decided whether the operational staff could attend individual workshops in an ongoing series.
Listening to the various public officials working for different institutions, I have seen that the staff and officials at the lower tiers of institutions have opinions on what good leadership means to them. When do they experience that they are led well? When do they see room for improvement? When do they get frustrated? In essence, as dilettantes, they have front row seats on observing and evaluating the effectiveness of their leaders.
These observations from the Western Balkans fit in with the conversations I have had with the many colleagues, in a wide variety of settings, over the years on how they experience their leadership. As much as people will tell you how much they like or dislike their work, this will often be coupled with an opinion of their leaders. One thing you can rely on is that people complain more often about their leaders than provide a complement – it is in our human nature.
The opinions can vary from negative:
- ‘my boss is so lazy’
- ‘the director is always telling people what to do, but he doesn’t have a clue’
- ‘my manager asks me to drop everything and gives this huge task to finish by tonight’
- ‘if I ask my project leader to arrange something, I know she will deliver’
- ‘the manager really looks after us the staff’
- ‘the owner of the company creates such a nice vibe – I love coming to work’.
With these observations, I noticed that opportunities exist in strengthening leadership approaches in various Balkan public sector institutions. I have taken on a role as Associate Fellow for the CEF, in which I have been working with CEF colleagues on developing the thematic area of Leadership for Managing Reforms. Here I am encouraged by the CEF’s aim to support people, teams, and institutions to design and implement policy reforms. In this, the CEF is facilitating public officials in being confident and networked leaders of ideas, people and reforms.
As part of this effort, I have contributed to research on leadership perceptions on how officials in CEF constituent countries view leadership – a stock-take as it were. In the research, we altered the prism through which we studied leadership. We took a dilettante approach and asked people about their first-person experience with leadership in their own role as a leader and solicited their views on leaders in their environment, their organizations’ approach to leadership, and a hypothetical ideal leader.
We explored this through a multi-step high-level research through a series of interviews and a survey*. We observed that officials have specific views on how leadership works for them. Which you can see as a demand-based rather than a supply-based point-of-view on how a group benefits from leadership in achieving its objective. In some cases, there was considerable overlap among respondents, whereas some people had quite specific preferences.
Leadership competences can thus be shaped from followers’ (the group’s) insights, rather than, or as a complement to, expert insights. Here views on competences can also be framed through questions like:
- Am I heard by my leader?
- Is my leader good in developing and operationalizing a plan?
- Does my leader know how to prioritize the issues?
- Does my leader understand the details of the problem we are trying to resolve?
- Does my leader represent me?
- Do I get all the information that I want or need from my leader?
A key insight coming from this research is not the list of aspects that officials (the group) think defines good leadership for them, but that the group, as a collective, is also well placed to define good leadership as are experts on leadership. In this, each group can define leadership within the context they operate – taking cognizance of the institutional or social-cultural environment they operate within. This is especially reinforced in environments where leadership revolves every several years. Here the group have an entrenched understanding which (traits of) leaders work well to achieve objectives within the operating context. This opens the opportunity for leaders to get more inspiration from dilletantes (their group) over-and-above the inspiration they may gain from the experts (celebrated leaders, gurus, academics).
A somewhat classical approach to developing leadership competences focuses on leaders gaining insights from expert knowledge – through guru books, trainings, coaching, motivational events, and so on. This follows an approach that leadership competences can be developed generically and applied to a wide set of situations. Leaders will gain sufficient (practical) insights to apply these competences to their specific circumstances. A supply-based approach.
Using a demand-based approach, leaders can also get insights into what works for the group that they lead and enhance their competences accordingly. Or gain insights into the wider environment – like the organization, the industry, or the country – the leader operates within. Also, experts can gain more insights into make things happen in different environments – albeit from a research perspective or to develop bespoke learning events.
How can this work in practice? It is obvious that adherents to the “Great Man” theory of leadership would be less inclined than adherents to the transformational theory of leadership to follow the perceptions of the group. Though not equally feasible in all circumstances – some inspiration may be found for other approaches in the suggestions below:
- One approach that has come into vogue is to use 360 assessments – ex post assessments of the leader from their senior leaders, peer leaders and followers. With this, the leader and their senior leaders see how well the leader performs and where improvements can be gained.
- Prior to conducting leadership learning events, surveys can be conducted among groups that leaders lead and assess what competences the group desires from its leader. You can also assess this across groups and ascertain commonalities or specifics among groups. With this information, the event can focus on key competences assessed from practice.
- Research on leadership can also use group insights to understand which leadership competences may fit best with different settings – different industries, countries, demographics of groups, et cetera. Obviously, this would require a significant cohort of respondents.
*This was conducted with national budgeting and costing coordinators within the context of the Economic Reform Programme (ERP).