Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Giving new meaning to leadership

Idle phrase

The crisis in the banking industry provides an excellent case study of why old stereotypes of leadership no longer work. Russell Hobby argues that leaders can be egalitarian and humble without being seen as weak.

The turmoil in the banking industry may seem a million miles away from education but its effect will be to limit budgets, change policy priorities and cause disruption in the communities we serve.

More immediately, it also offers valuable insights in leadership. For, ultimately, this crisis is a failure of leadership and exposes some common stereotypes of leadership as deeply flawed. We can use it as a source of reflection on some of our own assumptions about what good leadership is.

We are all guided by role models of leadership, an intuitive understanding of what a leader 'does' and what leaders are like, informed by our personal experience and our exposure to the folklore and myths of our society. Newspapers, documentaries, films and books all shape that picture: the tough police chief, the dedicated commander, the visionary politician, the scheming criminal boss.

It's amazing how these themes seep into our subconscious. Unfortunately, there is rarely any examination in fiction of the impact of leadership behaviour on the state of an organisation (for a brilliant exception see Gregory Peck in the 1950 classic Twelve O'Clock High). Fictional leaders get away with some extraordinary things.

All too often leaders are portrayed as superhuman - driven, self-confident, masters of every detail and fact in their domain, outstanding individual performers, articulate and blessed with perfect foresight about what is to come. (Interestingly, they seldom seem to share authority with others.)

Inspiring stuff, perhaps, but it can easily prevent real world leaders from doing what they know is right. And, when institutionalised into the design of organisations, it means we create leadership roles that require superhuman characteristics.

Banking leaders' flaws

Turning to the real world, the masters of the universe for the last decade have been the financial wizards of the banking industry. Yet, as the boom unravelled, it has been possible to spot flaws in the ways these institutions were led: the pursuit of one-dimensional targets at the expense of balanced success, chief executives who stifled dissent, a loss of the collective wisdom of the organisation (we have had boom and bust before), neglect of social responsibility, failure to question risk takers and hold them accountable, a failure really to understand how the organisation itself was working.

Optimism became arrogance; innovation became speculation; vision became greed. It seems that myths of leadership have been rife in this sector.

There are a number of damaging subconscious myths that shape our approaches to leadership. We need to surface these myths, question their relevance and find the space to examine what works for us and the real people we lead. Some of these myths include:

  • Leaders should be better at the job than the people they lead.

  • Leaders should know everything that is going on in their organisation.

  • Leaders can always have a clear vision of the future.

  • Leaders should be the most visible, articulate and vocal member of the group.

  • Leaders need to force people to do the right thing.

  • Leaders should have undisputed authority.

  • Leaders don't make mistakes.

Clearly there are times when each of these beliefs is justified. And most of us can certainly do a few of them easily all of the time. But no reasonable job requires us, and no normal person is able, to sustain all of these behaviours all of the time. The consequences are demoralisation, destruction of capacity, fundamental errors of judgement and burn out.

When spelt out so bluntly it is easy to criticise these beliefs but how much of our behaviour is actually founded on tacit agreement with them? How often do we give orders? How often are we the centre of the attention? How many decisions do we get involved in? How hard do we work trying to master every detail? How often do we do it ourselves rather than teach someone else?

A better way

If we can step back from the demands and expectations we feel are made of us and ask some basic questions, we might discover a better way.

  • What is the unique contribution that we can make to our organisation?

  • When do we feel most effective and energised?

  • What matters most to us?

  • How can we make other people stronger, more confident and more effective?

  • What, actually, works?

If people reject the leadership myths and find their own ways of being a leader, we will see many individual styles. But we are also likely to see some common ground: an approach to leadership in tune with our complex, technical and turbulent working environment but also, ironically, as old as the human race.

Recent research in evolutionary psychology (see Mark van Vugt for example) suggests that early models of leadership were egalitarian, democratic, rooted in the approval of the group, small in scale and team-based (with different individuals taking the lead depending on the circumstances).

This is an approach which is humble without being weak. Not shirking from confrontation or accountability but neither delighting in control. Demanding, visionary and articulate where needed, but not doing other people's jobs for them, not claiming to have all the answers and/or seeking the credit.

Perhaps this foundation in our history and biology explains why living the leadership myths feels so bad when we try to do it for the long term, and the alternative feels natural and energising.

Russell Hobby is an associate director at management consultants The Hay Group.


Annual conference

If you are attending the ASCL annual conference on 13-15 March in Birmingham, find out more about leadership myths by attending Russell Hobby's seminar presentation on Friday afternoon. He will delve further into our deeply rooted images of leadership and look in depth at the alternatives.

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