Grooming leaders

Shaping
up and advising leaders fit for the global stage is a messy business, says
David Butcher

Interest
in leadership thrives on both sides of the Atlantic. Both UK and US articles on
leadership continue to be published at a prodigious rate. But at least one
thing is changing. As though to offer a disclaimer for what they are about to
say, authors these days often begin by pointing out that there is still no
agreed definition of leadership. A quick browse through a selection of both
practitioner and academic publications reveals this to be broadly correct, if a
trifle pedantic.

Yet
this state of affairs seems to have little impact on leader development and
training, if mainstream practice is anything to go by. In this arena, what we
mean by leadership is clear enough. But is it right, particularly if we are
thinking about business leadership?

Most
of the effort to develop business leaders takes the setting and communicating
of vision, goals and culture as the starting point. Strong emphasis is placed
on understanding and deploying appropriate style, and all this is underpinned
by the need to identify and nurture essential personal qualities of leadership,
like integrity and empathy.

Some
leaders are very obviously poor communicators, but they nonetheless run
successful businesses. Great organisations are sometimes headed by intolerant,
narcissistic CEOs who by no stretch of the imagination can be said to vary
their style one iota. They have just the one, otherwise known as their
personality. They are often poor coaches, distant figures who are anything but
empathic.

And
is it really the case in vibrant enterprises that everyone understands the
overall mission and corporate goals, never mind agrees with them? After all,
organisational growth can be hugely exciting, but aimless. So it cannot be that
simple.

Principles
of rationality

Of
course, business leadership is all about vision and goals if organisations
abide by principles of rationality and corporate unity, and most of us respond better
to leaders who seem to understand and care about us.

This
fusion of rational and humanistic values, while both sensible and comfortable,
hardly defines good leadership. There are too many other criteria. But it is a
seductive mix that has both spawned and legitimised a leadership development
subindustry founded on these values. Its aim is to help create business leaders
capable of uniting and integrating an organisation around clear goals,
courageously removing obstacles and taking everyone with them as they go.

All
of this must be done through listening deeply to the views of many and
respecting all. It is a tough job, which is why so much development support is
needed.

Leadership
development methods follow naturally from these aims. Psychometric frameworks
provide the bench-mark personal characteristics of effective leaders. Strengths
can be built on, while "less strong" areas become the focus for
development or, alternatively, may be compensated for.

Style
inventories offer templates for deciding how to behave and relate to others in
different situations. And a burgeoning array of simulated and action learning
processes – structured and unstructured, behavioural and cognitive, interactive
and solitary, abstract and specific – are used to develop leadership practice,
supported by extensive coaching and mentoring processes.

There
is nothing wrong with these elaborate methodologies per se, and the more they
can be combined to develop the person in a holistic sense, the more valuable
they become. If there is one certainty about leadership, it is its irreducible
nature.

But
they overemphasise the significance of style and the interpersonal dimension of
leadership. There is also a tendency to fudge the thorny old question of
whether core leadership qualities can be developed. The assumption is that they
can, although no one is prepared to put money on it.

Just
as importantly, the model of management and organisation that lies behind these
development methods is not often born out in practice. And as with all
fallacies that arise in the world of education and development, there is great
resistance to acknowledging this.

Communicating
goals

There
is no point in developing leaders to set and communicate visionary, unifying goals
if, nowadays, these are largely meaningless to people. With few exceptions,
most corporations, even the brand-based examples like Virgin or McDonald’s, are
umbrella organisations made up of a changing population of stand-alone
businesses.

For
that matter, in the new economy corporations can be expected to come and go at
an unprecedented rate. Business leadership now is about creating the conditions
for organisations to thrive as democratised internal markets, characterised by
ebb and flow in the fortunes of constituent business units.

The
development process should reflect that, emphasising the need to manage
stakeholders, to understand empowerment and to preside judiciously over the
political system that, in truth, is the essence of all organisations. The task
of leading a business unit mirrors this. It involves treating the corporate
environment as a marketplace, using power well and being an effective
politician. Only in small businesses that still own themselves, is the role of
the leader confined to the simple luxury of pursuing entrepreneurial vision.

Development
needs to stress both leadership content and process. Content is about what a
business is trying to achieve, what it represents, its rationale. It is
fundamentally to do with useable ideas that come from a depth of understanding
of the business. In this way, what a business is not about also becomes clear.
This implies a strong emphasis on honing analytical skills and knowledge.

In
contrast, leadership process is associated with the use of power and pursuing
content in the context of political opposition. For the leader of a business
unit this means setting the agenda and realising it in the face of potential
opposition from corporate executives as well as rivals in both the internal and
external markets. In other words, business leadership requires rather more than
ambition and integrity, essential as these may be.

Style
will not create content, and the interpersonal conventions of good leadership
are of little help in the thick of political negotiation. Few leadership
development programmes, for example, address the problem of how to use power in
a principled way, what it takes to lobby effectively, or how one might
distinguish between constructive and destructive political processes. And if
the development agenda needs to change, so do the assumptions about what can be
developed and over what period of time.

In
the case of senior and top management, knowledge, cognitive skills and
attitudes towards power are hardly malleable, but they are at least susceptible
to change. With the right process, development can be rapid, although it is not
usually. It always extends beyond a training intervention.

Heart
of leadership

Significant
transitions in style, interaction patterns and qualities like ambition take
much longer still, if they ever occur. This is a fundamental point that goes to
the heart of what makes someone a leader.

In
that respect, it is more realistic to help people be who they already are,
warts and all, rather than become people they are not, and probably do not want
to be.

As
trainers and developers, what does this tell us about business leader
development? First, that we would do well to remind ourselves of how the
process of becoming a leader is a lifelong one. It embraces most, if not all,
aspects of the self.

Second,
carefully crafted development methods are not necessarily relevant ones, no
matter how assiduously applied. After all, if a thing is not worth doing, it is
not worth doing well.

Leader
development processes now need to stress business knowledge, organisational
analysis and the use of power and politics at the expense of style and the
interpersonal dimension.

Finally,
and perhaps most important of all, we must be clear that what counted as
business leadership for most of the 20th century is less appropriate as
organisations are transformed by revolutionary shifts in the business
environment. No wonder there is still so much disagreement about the definition
of leadership.

David
Butcher is director of the Business Leaders’ Programme at Cranfield School of
Management.

Butcher’s
tips for grooming top dogs


Think of leadership as being to do with the whole person, not a set of skills
and personal qualities.


Help leaders to be effective as themselves, not as a person they do not really
want to become.


Focus them on understanding their business and industry in greater depth – it
is a breeding ground for great ideas.


Get them to think constructively about the inevitable politics within their
business, and to build their own power base.


Tell them not to worry too much about style and interpersonal skills, but to
focus on building relationships – their communication blemishes will be
forgiven, but not their motives.


Remind them that they cannot be a friend to everyone – high-quality, trusting
relationships are a scarce commodity in business and they have to choose well.

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