Are leaders born with the divine mantle of excellence or are they forged through the fires of experience?
I once had someone tell me that we are all leaders. And I believed that until I began to operate in and delve into the study of leadership. I believe that we all have the potential to be leaders however we are all not divinely given nor have the fortitude to develop quality leadership traits. The act of leading is hard work and it is not for everyone.
So if not by divine creation or cultivated by difficult experiences, how does one become a leader? Better yet, which of the countless leadership styles is the divine selection?
First, this is an AND issue verse an OR issue. It isn’t one or the other but both. In a world where we focus on one or the other we often do not realize that opposites are often complementary. More on this later. For now, let’s look at leadership styles prominent in organizations based on the book, Managing for Excellence by David Bradford and Allen Cohen.
Leader as Expert:
There are many people who became leaders because they were the experts in their field. Some of the reasons for their rise to leadership could have been because they were there the longest, best at their craft, astute problem solver, and they understood their domain of knowledge. In traditional organizations, these experts are often “rewarded” with management responsibilities and leadership expectations. This is because traditional organizations still view the ladder as the only means of career advancement.
The largest drawback of leading as the expert is that you are not leading at all. The direct reports to this style of leader are limited in their learning and growth as the work itself is mostly centralized in the leader. In this leadership style we see the leader’s worth tied to being the one solving the problems and answering the questions. This should be of no surprise since these were the very capabilities that enabled them to move up the ladder.
Unfortunately, this style lends itself to being great at dealing with the technical factors of an organization but suboptimal at dealing with the human factors.
Leader as Conductor:
If you could, for a moment, imagine an orchestra conductor magically waving their stick to make harmonious music from various instruments that would otherwise sound like a train wreck. This single person provides much value in orchestrating the various silos in an organization into a harmonious whole. This conductor leadership style is also prevalent in organizations and it is often the evolution from leading as an expert.
This too has drawbacks. Chiefly, this style of leadership uses systems and procedures to get things done. These systems and procedures are used as crutches for accomplishment. This style also ‘pigeon holes’ direct reports into the silos they reside in which ultimately narrow’s the scope of their development. Additionally, when the conductor is busy conducting it is difficult to see how the forest is being affected. In this style, we see the conductor is busy wrapping their arms around everything – working hard to keep everything from falling apart.
Unfortunately, this reduces the ability to realize the full potential of the leader themselves, the team as a whole, and the work.
Leader as Developer (of people):
The two previous leadership styles could be coined as ‘heroic leadership’. They are the knights in shining armor saving the less capable. The hallmark of Leader as Developer is that leaders who adopt this leadership style create a safe environment for learning (which also means failures), growth and mutual influence. Work here is viewed as the development of other’s abilities. What this does is causes the team or organization to be responsible for the success of its accomplishments, not a lone leader.
Often in organizational contexts we see the responsibility of the work separate form those accountable for the work. Inevitably, the finger pointing occurs because when things don’t go right. When a leader creates a safe environment, we see responsibility and accountability occurring in the same place of the work.
A great example of this is high functioning agile development teams. Part of the success of these teams is the environment the leader creates, nurtures, and matures. It is the focus on the people and their development knowing that the outcome will be better work solutions. The alternative (Leader as a Expect and Conductor) causes a leader to focus on the work to the determent of the people.
As a Developer (of people) we see two general benefits of this leadership style. It Increased engagement and motivation and it expands ability to get things done. Yet, this style has its drawbacks as well (everything does). The leader must create adaptive-harmony between the development of people and work productivity. There will be times where the mission takes precedence and the flexibility of the team / organization will have to be measured against it. These instances take true leadership and already having an environment that fosters growth will pay significant dividends.
So regardless of a divine mantle, an iron-forged experience or musically talented leadership style, it is critical that organizations take a systematic look at leadership development as a core business function comparable with Sales or Customer Service, instead of an often obscure HR function. Anything less doesn’t account for the impact and importance that talented leadership plays on the organization’s ROI.