Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Leadership – nature or nurture?

With thanks to Roddy Millar with a comment from last week’s blog about ‘bottom up ‘ strategy implementation, I wanted to explore leadership in a little more detail.

Let me start at the beginning, usually a good place. Let’s start with a group of boys and girls starting at nursery / kindergarten together:

  • One of their first collective experiences involves working with leadership. Importantly, their leaders come from within. Whether it’s in a sport where often the best player is thrust into the position (albeit with some encouragement from the coach) or outside the classroom where one of the ‘gang’ is chosen to lead. Note, in my experience, there is often a reluctance from that individual to take up the role. Effectively, the gang collectively gives him / her permission to lead, a very important dimension when it comes to achieving any sort of collective strength.
  • The skill set then for this first group of leaders is consistently diverse (!) It does potentially include a superior skill in a relevant area, it occasionally includes intellect (where that is a critical dimension for the activity) and often courage.
  • At the same time, a key aspect to these early leaders is a collective experience with those around him / her. They occupy the same space sociologically, speak the same language (which is fundamental), and have a history together. This creates a bond in the group and also a humility and self-awareness in the leader – who is acutely aware that only the truth works in this group. Her position is entirely dependent on the authenticity with which she conducts herself.

Like everything, for those that maintain this role, some interesting things start to happen:

  • A degree of comfort with their position which leads to greater collaboration and consensus building. If you’re secure, the opportunity to have others contribute meaningfully to the debate and indeed potentially develop the initiative, is significantly easier.
  • Practice in the art of communication develops the capability…which reinforces the position.
  • An awareness of the position and power of others in the group becomes instinctive rather than forced…a natural tendency to ask for opinion and occasionally permission amongst those seen to possess that influence grows.

Let’s now move into the world of work, where our group finds itself after these early experiences. What do they find when they enter a corporate environment:

  • A hierarchical structure where leadership is often far removed and invisible. There is no collective experience (both in terms of the work, the social and economic background, the reward structures), just a given authority to lead.
  • A leadership language which is often incomprehensible and evasive, in its attempt to manage the flow of information.
  • Leaders who seem removed from the collective deliverable…with the notable exception of the shareholders, who occupy the centre ground. Anything which relates to corporate health exists to feed the latter.
  • A myriad of examples where the test of authenticity has been taken and has been failed.

Now, don’t take this the wrong way. I’m in no doubt at all as to the nightmare that is leadership in a large corporate institution with its conflicting requirements, the extreme loneliness of the position and the limitations in terms of true impactful change…and I also recognise the positive intent of many exceptional leaders who are striving to do their best in extremely difficult circumstances.

However, as quoted many times, we live in times where the level of employee engagement is at its lowest ever…can you see a correlation here? A question for you…

Is it the nature of the institution or the role

that’s causing this disaffection?

Categories: C suite leadership, Functional Leadership, Language, Strategy

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. ” If you’re secure, the opportunity to have others contribute meaningfully to the debate and indeed potentially develop the initiative, is significantly easier.”

    This line stood out in particular for me Ben. When we can get clarity on who we are and our individual purpose, we can start to serve others as their leader. We will be secure, send clear signals of authenticity to those who may wish to follow and be able to help them become the best they can be whilst working towards our shared vision.

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    • Andy, many thanks for your comment. The challenge of purpose and direction is as relevant for middle – senior management as it is for those who join organisations at the bottom…A recent statistic which I read talks to the disillusionment of employees in the US where it is estimated that 50% of the workforce will be self employed by 2020. An incredible change and a reflection of both employer practices around taking a more flexible approach to the workforce as well as the perceived productivity of those self-employed.

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  2. Wow – got me thinking a load so will take me a while to respond -: my personal experience is so different from that of “leadership” at my current location in the Gulf. Agree with Andy in the western world wholeheartedly, however there are cultures and people that differ hugely and only want to reach the end of their month to send the remittance home. Don’t care about anything else…..

    How do you lead those people ? Its nature for them but nurture for me – an oxymoron.

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    • Good question Dave…we often deal with the periphery of the workforce.. the 10% of acolytes who enthusiastically embrace the potential for change and the 10% of corporate resistors who enthusiastically refute any such change. The inertia of the middle 80% however is really the challenge…getting even a 1% change in behaviour / level of engagement in that group would have a very meaningful impact on performance.

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  3. Hi Ben, I published a post on the role leadership plays in M&A, and was interested in anything you may have written before. I came across this post. It’s generally something that isn’t discussed but it is the secret ingredient to success. I agree with you above with respect to being given permission to lead, plus the notion of authentic behaviour. I’d like to write a bit more on the topic in more detail, and reference some of the work I did as part of my MBA many years ago. But then I considered this would be right down your path as well.

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    • Hi Toby, enjoyed your post a lot…plays to my experience and perhaps the challenge of finding individuals with this skill set internally. Good idea re revisiting this topic…let me think about an angle and come up with some ideas based on recent experience.

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