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Careful…Leadership Might Get Loud

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine The role of leadership, and more specifically "great" leadership, has been talked about, debated, and recorded for centuries. Indeed, if we measured the complexity of a subject by the volume of literature produced, leadership must be up there with the most complex fields in history. And maybe that is true.

In the last 12 months alone, there have probably been, conservatively 1,000 books published on the subject of leadership. Type “What makes a great leader?” into Google, and you’ll receive around 65 million hits. With so much insight and advice out there, why do we still get it wrong? Why do we still see leaders and executives failing? DDI’s latest Global Leadership Forecast 2014|2015 research found that only 40 percent of leaders themselves rated the quality of leadership in their organisation as high. Only one in four HR professionals rated their overall leader quality as high. Looking to the future, only 15 percent of organisations rated their future bench strength as strong.

It Might Get LoudHaving spent more than 20 years working in the field of leadership and leadership development, I am passionate about leadership. I believe excellence in leadership is fundamental to the success of organisations, and society more broadly. But for some time now I have struggled with the overly prescriptive approach taken in much of the literature. Excellence in leadership is often defined by a somewhat generic set of five to 10 habits, attributes, or characteristics.

Now, before I open myself to a barrage of criticism, I am not suggesting that these insights are not useful. They are. But implicitly they assume the context for leadership is somewhat generic and one-dimensional. The reality is that, in today’s business environment, leadership takes many forms, and the focus and priority of leadership will vary from one situation to another.

One of my other great passions is music, and I recently watched a film called It Might Get Loud (yes I’m about to link leadership to another movie). It Might Get Loud is a music documentary that explores the history of the electric guitar, focusing on the careers and styles of Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2), and Jack White. The film documents the varied playing and recording styles of these three very different guitarists. It is a fascinating and compelling exploration of the guitar, the art of guitar playing, and the way each engages with their instrument in their respective environments.

The documentary prompted me to consider how we approach the discipline of leadership and leadership development. Two things in particular struck me:

  • Firstly, the program did not try to define what makes a great guitarist. If anything, it chose to celebrate the diversity of styles and the different contribution that each made to the art of guitar playing. Sure, they all brought some fundamental skills, but the application of these varied significantly.
  • Secondly, the individuals had embraced (perhaps subconsciously) their own diversity and unique contribution. They understood the strengths and limitations they brought to their practice and leveraged the tools and resources around them in different ways to create something unique and special. Jack White embraced the blues during the hip-hop era, while The Edge rejected the blues in favour of effects like echo and reverb.

In a New York Times article, the director, Davis Guggenheim clarifies, “This isn’t an analytical film. This isn’t a film that’s trying to catalogue anything. This film is about a path…These guys are trying to find their voice, and how do they do that?”

Like many other disciplines, leadership is ultimately defined by what you do and how you do it. However, this may not be the same for all situations and contexts and, therefore, efforts to articulate a defining list of leadership attributes may be limited and even flawed. It’s a bit like trying to arrive at a single definition of what makes a great guitarist.

That is not to say we shouldn’t learn from the body of work and research associated with leadership. However, while precision in leadership might be a worthy pursuit, and the ongoing body of research and insight certainly adds to our portfolio of tools and knowledge, there may never be one simple answer to the question “What makes a great leader?”

Increasingly, my view of what makes a great leader is shifting from a set of prescriptive capabilities or attributes to a set of fundamental questions. The answer lies in one’s own responses to these five questions of leadership:

  1. What am I required to do, or what do I want to do (the “What” and “How”)?
  2. What do I bring that enables me to do it effectively, and what do I bring that could derail my success?
  3. What can I change, and what do I need to manage?
  4. How do I change?
  5. What help do I need?

While all of these questions are important, it is the first one that is so often missing from the conversation about leadership. This defines the context within which a leader will operate. Context and leadership are intertwined. To understand leadership we need to understand the priorities that a leader must drive. Are they to open a new market, drive operational efficiency, and/or build the brand? The reality is that all of these demand a different portfolio of capabilities, experiences, and even personal attributes. A leader who is successful in one domain may not be successful in another. This might help to explain why leaders who have been successful in one situation fail in another.

The role of context in leadership is not new (e.g., Fiedler’s Contingency Approach Theory, House’s Path-Goal Theory, and Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership Model). Situational and contingent theories of leadership emerged in the 1940s and 50s as direct challenges to the traditional trait-based or “Great-Man” theories of leadership that dominated research to that point. However, these too often imply that an effective leader is one who simply adjusts or moderates their approach to suit a set of predefined situations or types. The effective leader is, therefore, one who is adaptive and/or agile.

While research has found adaptability and agility to be important characteristics, it still doesn’t explain why some leaders perform well in one situation and not in another. Furthermore, leaders are often asked to respond to multiple situations, priorities, and contexts at any one time. The answer may lie in our ability to confront the reality of who we are and what we bring to a situation, and the portfolio of capabilities, experience, and attributes that enable and derail success in any given situation. This is where questions two and three become important. Questions two and three may appear to be simple references to self-awareness (which has gained a lot of energy within the leadership development community). But self-awareness alone is insufficient. Again it is about context—what are you required to do, and what do you bring that might enable and derail your success?

Finally, questions four and five confront the important question—what can I realistically do to improve my chance of success in a leadership role?

The burden—and/or opportunity—of leadership is that we embrace the role and the expectations that come with the role. If we choose leadership (and ultimately we all have a choice), then we must choose to confront these five questions.

From a leadership development perspective we should and will continue to explore the role of leadership as well as the capabilities, attributes, and experiences that contribute to leadership excellence within any particular context. This will certainly help us address the questions above. But maybe we shift our agenda—from defining what makes a great leader to helping those confronting the role of leadership to answer those five fundamental questions.

Mark Busine is managing director for DDI Australia.

Posted: 24 Apr, 2015,
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