The quest for great leadership

In today’s context, as in centuries before us, we see that the value of great leadership is immeasurable, however its occurrence is sparse and isolated. Philosophically there are two reasons for this:

  1. The definition of great leadership evolved significantly over the past century.
  2. The nature of people has not evolved at the same rate as their expectations.

Without turning this blog into a research paper, some historical context is still required.  The defining essentials of great leadership have been the topic of scholars and philosophers for the entire existence of mankind.

The earliest modern theories of leadership are known as the “Great Man Theories”. Authors such as Machiavelli (1531), to Carlyle (1848) and Weber (1942), defined great leadership as characteristics of people borne into leadership status. As per Carlyle: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men. ” The defined characteristic and attributes of great leaders was very leader centric – it was all about the wonder and amazedness of these persons bestowed with generational or privileged leadership roles. And what was defined as recognizable attributes were very transactional in nature, such as:

  • drive for responsibility and task completion
  • vigour and persistence in pursuit of goals,
  • venturesomeness and originality in problem-solving,
  • drive to exercise initiative in social situations,
  • self-confidence and sense of personal identity.

These are all lovely attributes, and we know today that it may be great to have some or all of them, however it doesn’t make you a great leader, or a leader at all.

During the middle of the previous century, it became clear, that simply being born into greatness was not only insufficient, but also more often ineffective. Although I have not found evidence to my suspicion, the rise and fall of “great” political leaders may have contributed to the evident fallacy of the great man theory. The leadership theorists moved to behaviour related theories shifting their focus on eliciting and influencing desired behaviours from the followers. Although this phase may sound very manipulative from a high level, there are good tools and techniques within this school of thought which are still taught and used today.

Leadership theory and thought has moved on to a new paradigm where great leaders are defined by their humanity, humility, and relational capacity. One of my favourite current leadership thought leaders is Frances Frei. In her book “Unleashed” she defines great leadership as “Leadership is about making other people better as a result of our presence and have that last in our absence.” The concept that great leadership is not about the leader is diametrically opposed to the earlier great man theories. The concept that great leadership is about developing, inspiring, and inspiring greatness in others is widely supported by other current thought leaders as well, Collins, Maxwell, Sinek, and Wheatly.

What we currently know about, read about and sometimes preach about leadership, a new leadership paradigm that is relationship focused, a way to lead where followers reach their own potential and brilliance, is not what we see and experience in industry.

In a world of rapid change, fraught with the impact a pandemic, societal polarization and natural disasters, the old command and control leadership and other dubious practices underwritten by Machiavelianism seems to be alive and well in public and private organizations.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for command and control – getting people out of a burning building for example. But if your building is not burning (physical flames) updating the leadership paradigm to a relational paradigm will ensure the longevity of the organization.

To quote Margaret Wheatly on the topic: “This is a world that knows how to organize itself without command and control or charisma.  Everywhere, life self-organizes as networks of relationships.  When individuals discover a common interest or passion, they organize themselves and figure out how to make things happen.  Self-organizing evokes creativity and leads to results, creating strong, adaptive systems. Surprising new strengths and capacities emerge.

In this world, the ‘basic building blocks’ of life are relationships, not individuals.  Nothing exists on its own or has a final, fixed identity.  We are all ‘bundles of potential’ (as one scientist described quantum particles.) Relationships evoke these potentials.  We change as we meet different people or are in different circumstances.

In this historic moment, we live caught between the mechanical worldview that no longer works and a new paradigm that we fear to embrace. But this new paradigm comes with the promise that it can provide solutions to our most unsolvable challenges.”

In the quest for great leadership, we can place a lot of blame in both the leadership development industry, as well as the participants. This is summarized in an article by McCauly and Palus for the Centre for Creative leadership. Two points in their article are pivotal and imperative to changing the face of leadership towards a more current practice:

  • leadership development focuses on changing behaviour rather than addressing the underlying mindsets that are at the root of problematic behaviour,
  • the field is leader-centric, ignoring the power shifts in society that elevates followers.

To make the shift from command and control to building relationships that elevate and develop others, requires a lifelong commitment to self-development, and personal growth. Leadership is an inside job.

When we start a leadership development program or coaching engagement with a new leader, we quickly get to rule 1: it is not about you and rule 2 – yes, it is your fault.

How will you, as a leader take the lead into a deep dive into your mind and heart to improve on the underlying beliefs that feed unproductive behaviour?

Marderé Birkill, MBL, CEC, PCC

Executive Coach and Organizational Development Consultant

January 12, 2020