I have been mulling on the issue of leadership in organisations over the past couple of days, not least because more and more it seems, leadership qualities is increasingly identified as the missing magical “something” that organisations are using to differentiate their workforce. They are using the description of these seemingly mystical behaviours to a) describe the next layer of performance that high performers should be aspiring to, and therefore also all those operating beneath them if they want to be successful, but also b) to sort the wheat from the chaff, in a time of extreme cuts it is being used in organisations as a means of identifying those who no longer fit; redundancy criteria.
This is an important observation in both categories a and b, after years of talking about and getting people to focus on performance at work (I’m thinking in particular about the Public Sector here) and finally getting it, now it seems something altogether different is required.
I started my thinking about leadership in an obvious place, by thinking about people whom we generally view as great leaders. Here’s my list, it’s not definitive by any means, just the names that immediately sprang to mind; Churchill, Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Napoleon, Nelson, Duke of Wellington, George Washington, Elizabeth 1st (what! These are all ancient history! So a few perhaps still to be judged by history) Thatcher and Blair (controversial, only time will tell) what about business? I’m struggling for people I really would put on the “great” list…. Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs? So you see it is an eclectic bunch.
The trouble is when I think about these people without the rosy glow of awe with regard to their achievements, I also think of matters such as war, war at all costs, craven egotistical tempers, selfish personal and family gains, fealty, fear and pressed men (and women). I think of single minded pursuit of goals,” if you’re not with me then you’re against me” mindset, of alignment for the protection of home, family and access to decent food. Despite their greatness and their achievements, I am confident that these traits have all been used at sometime or other to describe the behaviour of tyrants.
Steve Jobs was undoubtedly the differentiating factor at Apple and Disney Pixar, when his illness was announced the share price in both organisations fell significantly. By all accounts Jobs wasn’t much of a team player, a former colleague once said that “Steve would have made an excellent King of France” and neither were any of the people mentioned above. All organisations need leaders, but they only need one. Look what happened when Elizabeth encountered Mary.
One of the most distinctive and effective things a great leader can do in my view is to assemble a team of thoroughly competent, capable people around them to deliver the reality of what needs to be delivered. In recognising their individualism, their apparently crazy ideas, their unnerving drive and passion for a goal, project or pursuit, great leaders know that aside from defining themselves as the leader in the cultural sense, they set themselves apart by ensuring that they can deliver and they know full well that they cannot do that on personal greatness alone.
Jobs once described his model for business
“My model for business is The Beatles: They were four guys that kept each other’s negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts. Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people.”
We do undoubtedly need leaders; they are the game changers, the direction setters, the ones who think of strategy before they’ve even put a strategic label to the thought. We do also need to take action to identify and nurture leaders…. We just don’t need everyone to be a leader if this is what great leadership is, we need the Beatles.