Leadership skills

Mike Pedler looks at the ‘challenges approach’ to leadership

If you were asked to recall a time when you were proud of yourself, what
would you say? Would your story tell of a work situation? Or would it come from
family life? Or from somewhere else?

Most of us can give examples of when we took the lead and contributed
something useful, not just for ourselves but also for other people. Whatever
your story, it is likely to be about a time when you did something useful in a
difficult or testing situation.

Leadership is a ‘doing’ thing; a performance art. It is what we do(or don’t
do) when faced with challenging circumstances. Challenges define leadership

Why is leadership so important?

Whether you work in a hospital or a large company, in a school or a local
business, you have probably noticed this new concern with leadership. Your boss
is talking about it, the Government says how important it is, the newspapers
deplore the lack of it, and you may even be on the receiving end of initiatives
to improve it. What people are saying now is that:

– Organisations are massively challenged by change and need more leadership

– Good managers are always important, but it is the ability to lead in the
face of the critical challenges of the day that makes the vital difference.

Leadership is an old concept, much older than management, with which it is
often linked and confused. Management became prominent in work organisation at
the time of the industrial revolution in Europe. Now in more post-industrial
times, leadership is returning to centre stage.

How is leadership developed?

The modern concern with leadership is reflected in more than half a century
of leadership research, the history of which is a story in itself. Trait
approaches, path-goal theories, situational leadership, contingency theory and
the currently popular transactional and transformational ideas have all
produced different training approaches for leadership development.

The challenges approach sees leadership as constituted by three domains:
challenges, characteristics and context.

– Challenges are the critical tasks, problems and issues requiring action

– Characteristics are the leadership qualities, abilities competencies and
skills of those involved

– Context concerns the ‘on-site’ conditions found in the challenge

Our criticism of most leadership development is that it concentrates on the
last of these domains to the exclusion of the other two. Most leadership
development is based on one of the many models of competencies or personal
qualities required to become a leader. While this is often helpful for personal
development, it rarely results in any useful action for other people or for the

Leadership as action and learning

A challenges approach to leadership is not about any set of personal
qualities or competencies, but what people actually do when faced with
challenging situations. These challenges come from life and work, from the
wider world and from our own questions about ourselves. Leadership is what we
do when we acknowledge and respond to these challenges.

This is a pragmatic approach, focused on what needs to be done in the
organisation, or the family or the community. All those facing real dilemmas
and choices know what the challenges are in their situations. These are the
problems and opportunities that, if faced and grasped, lead into the future.

The message is simple: if you wish to contribute to leadership, get yourself
out more, act on challenges and learn from your actions.

Mike Pedler is co-author of A Manager’s Guide to Leadership (by Mike Pedler,
John Burgoyne and Tom Boydell, McGraw-Hill, October 2003, ISBN: 0077104234)

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