5 Big Leadership Questions

I was recently working with a very keen group of leaders and we got talking about leadership and management books and articles that had inspired us. During the discussion, one of the group tapped the word ‘Leadership’ into the search bar in Amazon’s book department and came up with 60,000 options! If you include the vast array or academic articles that are produced and published every quarter which, wouldn’t have come up in the search, you must be looking at way over 100,000 sources. Given this tsunami of knowledge and opinion, the question is, where should you focus your reading?

The group came up with, by their own admission, 5 really clunky and huge questions that they would love to get people’s opinion on. And they wanted that opinion to be succinct, so they created a challenge…..

The Challenge:

Could you answer any of the group’s top 5 questions on leadership in under 800 words. Are you up for the challenge?

1. What is the role of the leader?
2. Has the role of the leader really changed that much over time?
3. Is remote leadership so different to leading people in near proximity?
4. What is the best model of leadership?
5. What is the role of the leader in Agile Teams?

So, each month, I’m going to raise one of their questions and seek your counsel. First up is, ‘What is the role of a leader?’

Attached are some thoughts to start us off… I look forward to hearing yours!

What is the role of the leader?

I can’t profess to reading every source of leadership knowledge that exists but over the last 20 years I’ve worked my way through quite a few! And even if you read just 0.001 % of the books on offer I think you soon identify a number repeated themes about what the role of the leader is. So bearing in mind the group wanted good places to start, I’m going to focus on three themes that I think come up most.:

The role of the leader is to:

1. enable people to achieve higher levels of performance…
2. than they would be able to do by themselves,…
3. as either individuals or as part of a team.

Let’s look at the first one: Leaders are there to ‘enable people to achieve high levels of performance’.

If the leaders isn’t there to enable people to achieve something, I’m not sure why they are there at all. It could be they are there to enable their team to achieve particular business related goals – for example, to achieve greater financial returns or improve customer experience. Or it could be more about improving the teams performance against particular cultural goals – helping people become more inclusive or helping individuals manage their time and wellbeing more effectively. More recently, the expectation is for the leader to be focusing on the latter as much as the former.

At all times the leader has a choice as to how they might choose to enable people to achieve the goal, and it is that choice that a lot of research focuses on. Kurt Lewin, way back in the 1940’s, observed that there are two ways of getting people to achieve a desired outcome or goal. You can motivate people to work towards the goal (using carrot, stick, reward, punishment, encouragement and incentive) or you could simply remove what is demotivating them or getting in their way. Demotivators could include anything from mixed messages, conflicting demands and politics to lack of resources, skills or self-belief.

Unfortunately, within organisations, many leadership practices, organisational structures and reward mechanisms lean towards Lewin’s first approach. However, there have always been sound models out there that can help us with the second. Most notable here is the ‘Path-Goal’ model, which suggests the role of the leader is to help the team agree a particular end state, and the path to achieving it, and then get out of the way, removing as they go anything that might impede the team from achieving their goal.

However, whilst these sources of research and wisdom have been available for a substantial amount of time, I think as leaders we still feel our value can only be realised when leading from the front. Unfortunately, in doing so we end up being the author of the goal, the pace setter and task master at the expense of using the strengths and motivations that exist within the team. And we know we do it! This is possibly why Simon Sinek and Dan Pink’s, easy to digest, Path-Goal related books are so popular. Sineks’s ‘Start with Why?’ [check] talks about the leader’s role being to put as much thought into ‘why’ a goal exists before thinking what or how it should be achieved. Another of his book’s, ‘Leaders Eat Last’ [check] is more about leaders focusing on what the team needs first, before imposing your own will. Dan Pink’s ‘Drive’ focuses on leaders ensuring there is a clear purpose to what people are doing, then giving them the autonomy they need to get it done whist ensuring they have the right level of mastery needed to achieve it.

The second theme that comes across from the abundance of leadership resources, is the leader’s role being to enable people to achieve higher levels of performance ‘than they would be able to do by themselves’. In other words, there is no point doing things for the team that they don’t need. No point interfering where we are not adding value, or inadvertently weakening the team by acting in a way that takes strength away from the team or team members.

There is also something here about the leader choosing the best way to enable the person or team to achieve a higher level of performance. The really useful leadership model here is ‘Situational Leadership’. In this model the authors, Hershey and Blanchard, provoke the leader to think through the best way of helping their team members achieve particular goals. In particular, their model asks the leader to first question the commitment and skills of the individual and then assess whether it is most appropriate to direct people to towards a goal, coach them, support them, or delegate and step back. By doing this the leader only gets involved where needed and uses an approach that both considers achieving results and developing the individual, so they are able to do more for themselves in the future.

The last theme that comes across from the majority of leadership resources is recognising when to focus on developing individuals or developing the team. The wisdom from many of these resources is that the leader is there to try to help individuals and teams achieve ‘interdependence’, where individuals are strong enough to function independently and without relying on anyone else but are also able to interact with others in a way that makes the team stronger than the sum of its parts.

I find agile leadership and agile ways of working particularly relevant here. The Agile Manifesto places huge weight on the role of self-organising teams. The idea here is that ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ are split apart. The role of the leader is to help the team achieve a shared vision and road map (both traditional ‘leadership’ roles). When this is established the leaders help their team adopt agile practices that enable them to organise and support themselves (roles usually associated with ‘management’).