Undaunted Leaders
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Undaunted Leaders

Tomorrow’s Leader Needs the Repertoire of Styles and Skills of a Wise Advocate

Photo by Dolo Iglesias

Most books on leadership advocate one right leadership type, often defined as a model set of characteristics and behaviour traits said to be the right approaches for the age in which we live. Thankfully this idea of a single right approach is increasingly being questioned and will be by several speakers at the upcoming conference, “UNDAUNTED: How Successful Leaders Face Up to Wicked Problems and Avoid Predictable Surprises”.

Dennis Tourish. In his book, Management Studies in Crisis, dedicates a chapter to the topic of leadership theory. He points out, “Researchers identify an ever-greater range of attributes and skills that leaders should aspire to develop and which a select few are deemed to possess”. But adds, “any appearance of success with leadership research is a façade”. By way of example he points to Authentic Leadership Theory (ALT) saying, “a core assumption of ALT is that authentic leaders have only positive moral qualities”. And he adds, “It presents a black-and-white view of leadership, shorn of all complexity and any motivation other than the desire to be good”.

Tourish’s concludes, “ultimately, ALT rests on a primitive view of identity and self-awareness. Identity is presented as a simple construct, consisting of little more than positive attributes that are consistent across time and circumstances.” “But it is impossible to transcend the world that we occupy. We exist in a context, variable over time and can never separate from this. We must always interact with people, events etc. and cannot be disinterested spectators of our own particular context”.

Like any abstracted and over simplified concept, the notion of one right way to lead is an easy one to ‘sell’. Or as Tourish says, ALT is little more than a series of fables, designed to reassure us that leadership is simpler than it is”. We are too willing to accept these fables. Choosing to wilfully ignore that accepting them makes no sense and is dangerous. We see this happening in many disciplines, not only management theory. Economics, the “dismal science”, has repeatedly fallen into this trap as many critics have complained.

If there is no single right approach to leadership, and the right styles are situation and issue dependent, a successful leader must have a repertoire of approaches to call on, and will need to know which to call on in each case. This is a problem made worse by the ever-growing range, scale, scope, size and number of problems leaders need to deal with.

Michael C Jackson explains why complexity leave leaders feeling daunted in his book Critical Systems Thinking And The Managing of Complexity, when he says, “What help can decision-makers expect when tackling the “messes” and “wicked problems” that proliferate in the age of complexity? They are usually brought up on classical management theory that emphasises the need to forecast, plan, organise, lead, and control. This approach relies on there being a predictable future environment in which it is possible to set goals that remain relevant into the foreseeable future; on enough stability to ensure that tasks arranged in a fixed hierarchy continue to deliver efficiency and effectiveness; on a passive and unified workforce; and on a capacity to take control action on the basis of clear measures of success. These assumptions do not hold in the modern world, and classical management theory provides the wrong prescriptions”.

Achieving success in this context represents a greater challenge than ever. But, as Art Kleiner and his co-authors argue in The Wise Advocate, a new understanding of leadership makes success possible. They suggest, leaders need to be able to practice both low-level leadership which is transactional, and high-level leadership, which is strategic. But low-level, transactional leadership, dominates, whereas we need strategic leadership more and more. It must dominate.

Transactional leadership is based on the application of expedient responses situations and issues, designed to satisfy all parties if possible, and as quickly as possible. It leads to short-term solutions.

Short-term solutions often end up being problematic, and frequently at odds with the achievement of long-term objectives. It is the reason we hear so many complaints about short-termism. And, as Kleiner et al explain, it is for this reason transactional leadership is insufficient. It must be accompanied by strategic leadership, or high-level leadership as they also call it.

Importantly, Kleiner et al do not argue transactional leadership is inherently bad. In fact, they argue it is sometimes essential. But strategic leadership — the ability to handle complex problems for which there is no obvious short-term solution, in which the stakes are high, and in which influencing others is essential — requires a much more considered approach. It calls on a leaders to question their own thinking and assumptions, as an independent third-party, ‘wise advocate’, might. It requires them to question the needs, wants and thoughts of others — customers, employees and other stakeholders. Then they will be in a better position to ensure decisions taken serve more interests, and are more likely to be attuned to the long-term goals.

Kleiner believes today’s successful leaders are able to listen to their inner voices, to access their ‘wise advocate’, but only occasionally, and not always intentionally. The power of the concept comes from putting it to use intentionally, and often. However, the vast majority of ‘leaders’ are not strategic. Habitual thinking traps them at the lower level where they seek expedient solutions to all issues, without due consideration of the medium and long-term consequences.

There is some good news. Our thinking habits can be broken, and strategic leadership leaned, by “self-directed neuroplasticity”. This is a term coined by a co-author of the book, Jeffrey Schwartz, a research psychiatrist. It means ‘leaders’ can build the mental habits to become a ‘strategic leader’ through the deliberate, repeated, focus of attention which rewires and strengthens certain brain circuits into new patterns. It might sound complicated? It simply means changing your brain by changing the focus of your attention, intentionally. Tools can be used to aid the process, bringing about a re-design of the cognitive pathways in your brain. In other words, new ways of thinking can also become new habits.

Importantly, the new habits, those of the strategic leader, call on the inner voice or wise advocate in choosing the right leadership approach for each issue or occasion. This is not about self-reflection in the ALT sense of questioning leadership characteristics and behaviours that are needed to make us ‘authentic’. It is an approach that stops the leader defaulting to the search for the expedient solutions, rather than the strategic solution. The strategic leader with a well rehearsed repertoire of styles and skills grows in confidence and is undaunted by the challenge of selecting appropriate leadership style for a particular issue and situation.

Delegates to the conference, “UNDAUNTED: How Successful Leaders Face Up To Wicked Problems And Avoid Predictable Surprises” will have the privilege of hearing further insights from Dennis Tourish, Art Kleiner and Michael C Jackson. The conference takes place in London om March 9th Download the Conference Brochure. Book a Ticket — Book Before 9th February to get the early bird ticket price.

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Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett

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Advocating the purpose of all enterprise should be contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.