Saturday, July 21, 2012

What Do We Understand By Leadership?

Article published in  Le Mauricien | 3 July, 2012

In the recent months there have been frequent discussions on the quality of leadership, on leadership failures, on the need for a ‘new generation of leaders’ etc … This short article, which does not pretend to be exhaustive, attempts to throw some light on this pertinent issue.

Leadership and Authority
While most of us invariably extol the virtues of democracy, we often associate leadership to a centralized command-and-control model, symbolized by an all-powerful charismatic individual. This happens at national, party and even organizational levels. Leadership is often considered synonymous with ‘being number 1’, ‘being on top’, ‘being the boss’ or ‘the chief’ with unquestioned personal allegiance. Sometimes to avoid any confusion, we even use the term ‘Supreme Leader’ – a pleonasm, some would say.

This situation is reminiscent of the medieval monarchical absolutism (supported by the doctrine of the divine right of kings). In fact, the metaphors that are used to refer to political nominations are often those that one would associate with royalty – French media, for example, announced that François Hollande was “intronisé candidat socialiste pour 2012” or that he was “intronisé président”. The public, on the other hand, is also not uncomfortable with this state of affairs as they seem to harbor a good dose of nostalgia about kings and queens.

Experience, on the other hand, has shown that leadership does not always come with status or hierarchy or authority (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Aung San Suu Kyi…). It is also true that many individuals occupying senior positions with all the trappings of power and status, have failed to demonstrate effective leadership in that they are utterly incapable of mobilizing their followers to undertake the required changes that would in the long run be in the interest of all stakeholders.

Elitist Conception of Leadership
Moreover, this elitist conception of leadership is undemocratic, limited, self-defeating and wasteful. It clearly flouts basic democratic values of human dignity and equality. It is limited and self-defeating in that it thrusts on the shoulders of one individual the responsibility to solve a range of complex problems while absolving ‘followers’ of all responsibility. The latter do not resent living under the illusion of an all-powerful leader who would protect them and solve all their problems without requiring any effort on their part while they watch passively and sporadically wake up to voice some complaints or criticism.

While this elitist conception is wasteful in that it fails to tap the distributed intelligence and energies of all relevant stakeholders, it paradoxically suits both parties. On the one hand, it confers excessive importance to the ‘rulers’ who would in return consider themselves free to indulge in certain excesses that one traditionally associates with royalty – they have a “droit à l’excès”! On the other hand, it frees the ‘ruled’ from the responsibility to work hard to collectively solve their own problems. To paraphrase Ronald Heifetz, these problems can be classified in three broad categories that are discussed below.

   -    Technical problems
Technical problems only require the identification of the relevant competent experts to recommend and unilaterally implement solutions. If someone has a broken arm, he only needs an orthopedic surgeon who would fix a plaster and in a few weeks the problem is solved without any active involvement of the patient. Similarly, a good car mechanic will be able to fix a carburetor problem on his own.

   -   Adaptive challenges
Adaptive challenges are complex problems with no known solutions or experts. These include problems like poverty, substance abuse, educational wastage etc – all of which require a systemic approach involving knowledgeable people from various fields. They also require a change in lifestyle, values and mindset. More importantly, they require a lot of hard work and active collaboration on the part of those concerned by the problem and involve a high risk of failure / relapse.
The sine qua non condition for mobilizing all the relevant parties to address adaptive problems is real LEADERSHIP (often independent of one’s position in the hierarchy) characterized by values such as integrity, trust, commitment, respect for the individual; hard work by all those concerned; an ability to motivate and energize the relevant parties; a willingness to take risks while initiating significant (sometimes unpopular and/or painful) changes.
Ineffective leadership, on the other hand, is evidenced in cosmetic changes or in vainly throwing technical solutions at adaptive problems. This often results in a waste of valuable resources and a worsening of the situation.

   -    Technico-adaptive challenges
These will include problems like an acute heart condition (e.g., due to a narrowing of arteries) that would require surgery by a skillful surgeon AND changes in lifestyle, values and mindset on the part of the patient. Only a technical solution (surgery) would not suffice in this case.

Leadership and change
Many of those who call themselves leaders turn out to be nothing more than power wielders engaged in a politics of exchange - more interested in buying support to satisfy their own purposes than in the aspirations of the population. What we require is a transformational approach that, to summarize MacGregor Burns, espouses a value-based relationship between leaders and followers in which each transforms the other - leaders transforming followers, helping them to become leaders themselves. We need to remember that the ultimate goal of the leadership process is to foster sustainable and positive social/organizational CHANGE while transforming leaders and followers into better, more self-actualized people, with leaders and followers raising one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.

In view of the brief discussion above, one would be more inclined to see leadership not so much as a status, a position or a title, but more as a value-based relational process, as a value-based activity aiming at sustainable positive change, a process that recognizes that helping others ultimately helps oneself in the true spirit of ‘ubuntu’*, a process that recognizes the interconnected nature of problems. The status, position and title can be useful tools of leadership rather than necessary conditions for leadership to exist.

* Ubuntu: an ethical concept of southern African origin that Archbishop Desmond Tutu defines as a belief that one cannot exist as a human being in isolation; one belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Sir, I have been practicing transformational leadership for years and it is a real pleasure to discover and read your post on this exciting topic. Looking forward to having further discussions together in the near future. Kind regards, Patrick Riviere