Vibrant economy blog

Leadership: illusion, delusion and reality

Simon Littlewood Simon Littlewood

The way we think about driving organisational performance is changing. What can leadership add, and how can we be certain that our leaders provide growth, stability, innovation and productivity?

When we think about businesses, we visualise their top leaders. But in today’s complex, rapidly-evolving and globalised economy issues like growth, productivity and purpose pose new challenges every day. We may be expecting too much of individual leaders – and overlooking the nature of leadership.

Leadership was the focus for an event at our Finsbury Square office in May 2018, part of our Cranfield event series with Cranfield University.

Some key findings from our Planning for Growth [ 5676 kb ] report on what factors are holding businesses back. It found that 41% of respondents felt their leadership team had become more risk averse, thinking in short-term ways at the expense of their long-term growth strategy. In the face of barriers to growth, are we leaving it to our leaders to come up with all the answers – forcing them to choose prescriptive leadership work over adaptive?

How to think about leadership

Rather than thinking about individual leaders, we need to start framing our thoughts in terms of leadership work itself. That is the opinion of Kim Turnbull James, Professor of Leadership and Executive Learning at Cranfield School of Management. “Leadership is about recognising challenges and enabling the organisation to bring about changes needed to meet these ,” says Kim. “Leadership is always assumed to be the CEO, but getting work done is more complex than that.”

Leaders are often described as ‘inspirational’ or ‘visionary’ but can they be these things while completing normal work that the organisation needs to function properly? This is the dilemma facing leadership: a demand that leaders feature opposing characteristics.

Adaptive versus traditional leadership

Kim explains that successful leadership revolves around managing the tension that exists between innovation and stability.

“We need leadership for the knowledge era rather than the machine era. We need to engage fully in the modern enterprise, but most leadership concepts come from the industrial era of management,” she says. “Digital changes, globalisation, changes in political and economic context, mean people must respond to every new challenge, no matter how unknown or surprising. That requires leadership that is inventive and responsive to rapid changes – business as usual, but with the capability to respond to new futures.”

There is a clear differentiation between traditional leadership, where leaders understand the end goal and the steps to take to get there, and adaptive leadership, where leaders respond to complex challenges. In the former, leadership work sets the processes, goals and standards. In the latter, leadership work is about exploration, innovation and meeting the unknowns.

The illusion and the delusion

There are three pillars of leadership work that have to be balanced: direction; commitment; and alignment. Expecting leaders to fulfil all three pillars on their own is unrealistic – it’s the ‘illusion’ – magical thinking. More dangerous is the ‘delusion’, creating the potential for narcissistic leaders to take over. “We know that leadership is really a collective effort; yet we tend to only reward one person. So is it surprising that they then take the credit and believe in their own heightened status,” Kim explains.

“One way to avoid narcissists rising in the company is to encourage 360-degree recruitment,” adds Ben Chambers, Head of our Business School: “Involving the wider team improves quality in the role. We also think that the younger you can get people in leadership positions, the better the results. Find the roles with ‘developmental heat’ – the crucibles that challenge them to improve. Leadership is actually quite simple: a long series of small pieces of work that get you to where you need to be. Its core attributes of agility and resilience don’t change.”

Collaborative leadership development

Our approach to how we treat our leaders can change. Collaborative leadership learning moves towards leadership work that involves the wider group. It begins with a calm, safe space, a ‘holding environment’ where admitting to not knowing the answers is acceptable. Kim’s collaborative leadership learning then follows seven distinctive parts:

  • Noticing and sharing situational awareness, being open to new information
  • Discovering the problem from many viewpoints, and sharing the information
  • Framing the challenge so we can better understand it as a shared need
  • Brokering ways of working with the team that will overcome a problem
  • Designing experiments in a safe space to see what really works best
  • Experimenting in the safe, holding environment using the wider team
  • Realising the change by rolling out solutions and monitoring progress

The core work of leadership has shifted to creating the organisational capacity for responding to complex challenges. The illusions and delusions that can take over are collective failings: they only exist when we all believe them. Identifying negative patterns, encouraging collaborative leadership work, and balancing technical with adaptive work in an appropriate way; this is the reality of how we can all influence successful leadership.

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