Thinking About Leadership

My daughter and I were talking last night about managers and leadership.  This is a subject to which I have given much thought and analysis.  True, one can buy any number of books on the subject, there seems to be no end of consultants on that subject.  The seven or ten effective habits of successful leaders, how to have visions that inspire followers, creative leadership for creative groups, the list goes on ad nauseum.  The fact is, most of these people really don’t know much about the subject.  Even those in psychological research seem to miss target and one would think that they should be able to define that quality or trait, depending on whether one believes it to be acquired or is innate.  And no one has come out with a training manual on how to be a leader, at least not a step by step basis.  That brings into my mind the image of a Monty Python drill sergeant in an officer candidate school yelling, “By the numbers…..”.

Usually one of the first items broached is that of authority and from whence it comes.  Well, there’s the military leadership which relies on explicit authority.  That is you will do as I say because I said so and if you don’t something very unpleasant will happen to you like a dishonorable discharge or firing squad.  But that is not really leadership, is it?  Any fool can give orders and many general have been rank fools, not leaders.  While personal responsibility for the lives of men or corporate assets may lie on a formal system of authority, authority is responsibility, something so many policemen have forgotten or never learned, and as such commands (I like using a bit of irony) personal responsibility and liability.  Just because you own the company doesn’t make you the leader.  Besides, regardless of how much authority you think you have you must still influence your subordinates.

I would believe that the main reason why there is so many unsettled theories about leadership is that the subject is seen apart form its natural habitat.  We cannot study leadership in isolation.  Instead, we must, like Jane Goodall, observe leaders interacting with their subordinates.  Now this is a difficult thing to do in the wild because we must take care not to influence the behaviors under observation.  Much of the basic observations have been done for us and are still being done as new research ideas are presented.  Rupert Brown, while he was a reader at Oxford University, did quite a bit of research on small groups and interactions.  You see, the group, particularly the small group, is the context for leadership.  And how one forms or becomes a member of a group that is the basis for understanding group behavior and the context for understanding individual behaviors in a group.  A group is a minimum of two individuals who by either explicit or implicit expression form a group.  If you and I meet for some purpose and agree to interact, then we have formed a group.  It may be permanent or it may be temporary, but for the purpose intended, we are a group.  I may be your lab partner in chemistry class or a pick-up basketball player for one on one drills.  I could be your marriage partner or that extra man or woman a host or hostess needs for a dinner party.  The last two examples shows the time and interest continuity.

So far, so good, I’ve described a group.  What about the leader, where is the leader?  Groups have common goals and values and its members hold them to some degree.  That means that group members share those goals and values to a certain degree, none of which is exact.  Draw a circle representing the group of various individuals.  Now draw a number of smaller circles that have a common reference point to each other.  That is the degree of interaction of the individual goals and values that all have in common.  It also shows that the individual members may have goals and values that are not common to all other members of the group.  This is a most important point of group membership for it shows the strength of commitment to the shared goals and values as well as strength of unshared goals and values.  So where is the leader?  He or she is the one whose goals and values are most aligned with the shared goals and values of the group membership.  This is the basis of all leadership roles.  It is from this interaction that a leader emerges.  If a new leader is to be inserted into a military unit the most important action he can take is show that he has visually adopted some badge, cap, or other garment of the unit, one the unit prizes highly.  It may be that special baseball cap or the units special insignia or badge.  When Montgomery took over the English 8th army in North Africa, he wore all the various unit badges on his hat.  This was a visual reminder that he considered himself as having joined their organization and not they his.  That the 8th army became his own unit is undeniable, but first he had to become one of them.  The idea of Esprit de Corp is that all members share in common some goals and values of the group.  Any CEO who walks in and says to the group that he is calling the tune and everybody will dance his dance has just committed leadership suicide.

Now the dance begins.  Because the leader is the one whose goals and values are most closely aligned with those of the group, he or she will use influence to lead.  Influence is that behavior with a number of subsets.  Leadership by example, often called walking the talk, is a very effective way o get other members of the group to act in those ways that express the goals and values of the group.  If I am the quarterback of the team and I want to show that hustle is a value we should all share I must show hustle at all times.  I can’t walk back to the huddle, I trot or better yet, run.  I show confidence in myself and my abilities and then I show confidence in yours, I make having confidence one of the values the team values.  I take a positive role in doing the behaviors I want from others.  Do as I do, not as I say.  But influence is often taking the time to explain what is needed and why.  I do not need to tell each member exactly how to do something I want done unless I am engaging in training.  A military example is that I am leading my platoon on patrol and we encounter an enemy position.  I want to attack the position and so I inform my men of my desires to attack, why we need to attack, and how we might attack the position.  I would also ask for ideas so that my men feel they have some choice in the action.  My orders are that I must attack any enemy position, if possible with what forces I have available, and let my men help me decide how it should be done.  Then I trust them to carry out the attack.

Well, that sounded very simple and yet those actions are predicated on training of the individual members and of the group as a whole.  Training relates to goal achievement and is, itself, a value of the group.  In fact, it is a very important value because it gives the leader to see individuals in action and involvement with the group.  Maybe my group does the accounting functions for the department.  One member does payroll while another does accounts receivable and a third does accounts payable.  Still a forth may do the benefits and a fifth does the budget.  If I am a good manager I will see that my people have an opportunity to cross train into the other positions and that when needed they can perform any of them.  Now these are rather simple examples but the principles are simple in themselves.  Group membership is an investment in time and when the leader invests his or her time in the individual members, and thus the group as a whole, the group benefits and leadership is successful.  We all exhibit leadership to one degree or another within any group of which we are members.  If we don’t then we make ourselves candidates for exclusion, for rejection.  And that is something a leader must decide and act upon when the behavior warrants action.  There is still more to discuss but by now you should have some understanding about leadership.

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