Where can we find leaders?

When I was studying for my Masters degree I was somehow infatuated by the research work of Gareth Jones on Leadership. Unfortunately he died early this year. In his work with Rob Goffee he established that leadership is non-hierarchical concept. Much of the leadership literature is overly concerned with those who reach the top of organisations.  This has fuelled the persistent misconception that people who occupy senior organisational positions are leaders. Nothing could be further from the truth. The misconception has probably damaged our capacity to understand leadership and what it is made of. It has blinded us to the true nature of leadership.

So where can we find true leaders?

Being given a particular organisational title or role like for example team leader, head or manager may confer some authority, but it certainly does not make you a leader.  Hierarchy alone is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the exercise of leadership. Indeed, it could be argued that the qualities which take you to the top have nothing to do with leadership.  People who make it to the top do so for a whole variety of reasons – including technical skills, political acumen, personal ambition, time-serving, even nepotism – rather than real leadership quality. Many times we keep repeating the same mistakes of promoting people who have shown proficiency in some technical skills only to discover than when that person now needs to manage people they need a new set of skills, which he or she do not have, and so they end up micro-managing people.

Research by Gareth Jones has concluded that leadership is not the sole preserve of the chosen few. It is actually the contrary. Great business organisations have leaders at all levels and seek to build leadership capability widely and to give people the opportunity to exercise it. This contrasts immensely with my daily experience with family businesses and SMEs. It is either through fear, through wanting to keep control over everything or through lack of actual knowledge that they keep throwing either family people or keep trying to keep control over everything with huge immediate and future negative effects.

Which leads to the next natural question. What is then leadership about?

The foundational definition of leadership is that leadership has to do with relations. Put simply, you cannot be a leader without followers. Whatever the characteristics of any leader, at the basis of everything, is the fact that leadership is a relationship actively built by both parties. In reality, leadership is always a social construct that is recreated by the relationships between leaders and those they aspire to lead. Effective leaders are not simply amalgams of desirable traits; they are actively and reciprocally engaged in a complex series of relationships that require cultivation and nurture. Like all social creations, this web of relationships is fragile and requires constant re-creation. You can confirm this every time you talk to a successful CEO or a team leader. All will tell you that much of their leadership effort is devoted to the maintenance of particular kinds of relationships with their followers.

This insistence on the relational nature of leadership does not mean that these relationships are necessarily harmonious – they may well be edgy – but they are about leaders knowing how to inspire followers to become great performers. Having said so, there are some fundamental principles of leadership that apply across the board. Followers want feelings of excitement and personal significance from their leaders. In addition, they wish to feel part of something bigger – a community, if you will. But above all, they look for leaders who are authentic. Indeed, authenticity is integral to the relationship. Without it there can be no significant investment of trust on either side.

If you want to learn and read more about what leadership is about, I invite you to read the masterpiece classical article of Gareth Jones and Robert Goffee with the title “Why should anyone be Lead by you?” (click on article’s name to read it).

One final comment. I meet family business leaders, who underestimate the importance of having their teams trained in leadership and communications skilled, only to grumble how much their teams are suffering to pull the same rope and how unhealthy is the inner culture of their business organisation. Nothing happens in isolation. As Gareth Jones used to say – Our business structures and cultures kill leadership. We want leadership but we kill it. Teamwork is the result of leadership and communication skills. You discard those skills, you have no teamwork.

Teamwork is the result of leadership and communication skills. You discard those skills, you have no teamwork.

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