Published December 2010
Whether working on a project, running an organisation or being President of the United States, we are all well aware of the importance of ‘good leadership skills’. There is nothing more frustrating than an inept frontman who dithers over decision-making or alienates co-workers by being too aggressive. But how often is a leader’s success just down to their ability to inspire and motivate others? Are there not a number of other significant factors - the economical constraints they are working with, the quality of the people on their team, a desperate lack of a particular resource - that have an equal, if not greater, impact on the end result?
Reality television series, especially shows like The Apprentice, thrive on the idea that anyone can do anything if they have the right mix of charisma and insight - currently the vogue of great leadership - but is this fuelling a leadership obsession? There numerous situations I can think of where we could actually do with less talking, posturing and game-planning and more - well, work. Professor André Spicer, WBS, has recently published Metaphors We Lead By, co-edited by Professor Mats Alvesson, Lund University, documenting detailed research into the nature of leadership within knowledge-intensive environments. The book's aim is to take a more critical look at leadership, finding out what exactly we mean by the term ‘leader’ and to investigate whether leadership is always, or indeed ever, the golden bullet.
"I am a leadership realist," explains Prof Spicer, "Leadership does have importance but we overate it. For many people, exhibiting their leadership skills is actually just a convenient way of avoiding the boring admin tasks that still need to be done." Knowledge-intensive environments in particular are often not in need of the strong leader type: "Individuals who are well-educated, well-trained and know what they are doing, and don't need to be micro-managed, they are more than capable of managing themselves and are very self-motivated."
For many people, exhibiting their leadership skills is actually just a convenient way of avoiding the boring admin tasks that still need to be done...
Having said that, while there might not be a need for an itinerant boss, workers do benefit from a figurehead who is able to give meaning to their day-to-day efforts: "The symbolic aspects of good leadership are really important. Often in knowledge intensive environments it is hard to understand what you are working on - the product is intangible. There is a real need for meaning and leaders provide, and manipulate, that meaning."
While researching the book six leader-types emerged from various perspectives on what good leadership is. Profs Spicer and Alvesson had not planned to organise their findings around such metaphors but it became clear that certain images were central to people's understanding of effective leadership. Interestingly, they were not all positive. Three of the six have distinctly negative connotations, namely the cyborg, the bully and the commander. The commander, for example, is a style of leadership best suited to military organisations; what the commander says must be done and intense focus on results is celebrated. But this divide-and-conquer attitude fails to inspire workers who do not share the view that this is the best way to get things done.
The three positive metaphors are refereed to as the saint, the gardener and the buddy. These leaders all make sure that employees feel nurtured and looked after, being more facilitatory than heroic. "Obama is a great example of a saint-type leader: he was elected under the presumption that he could magically transform people, society and organisations by force of his goodness. He came into the White House and was faced with the age-old difficulties of working within a bureaucracy. Now his followers are extremely disheartened, it is almost like they are jilted believers."
We all have preconceptions about the most effective way to lead, but Profs Spicer and Alvesson found that the most important factor was that the leader and their followers shared their idea of good leadership: "You need to have different styles of leadership for different situations. In order to be seen as a competent leader the most important thing is to meet the expectations of the followers first and foremost." Unfortunately, it is no good attempting to play out buddy-type leadership in an environment where bully-boy tactics are the norm.
Good leadership, then, is essentially about being an adept and versatile performer, responding to the needs and wants of your followers and giving them, more than anything, a sense of security, whether that means encouraging chats about their career development or focused targets for them to work towards. Why then, do leadership roles demand much higher salaries? It seems that our assumptions regarding the importance of leadership have been institutionalised, incorporated into the rationale behind employee pay differentials. People clamour to showcase their leadership capabilities, incentivised by a pay-rise rather than responding to a need within the organisation.
Good leadership is essentially about being an adept and versatile performer, responding to the needs and wants of your followers...
Prof Spicer recognises this amongst his students - they have all grown up with the idea they can, and should, be great leaders. They are more interested in taking the top spot than applying themselves to the task at hand, finding innovative solutions and getting things done. "I wonder why the idea of followership is not more attractive - I think it is more positive, more realistic. It is achievable for all."
We are not about to see a rise in the cult of followership anytime soon, however. The myth of the importance of leadership is deeply ingrained in our working culture. Arguably this myth has a stronger hold in America than in Europe: "The classic explanation of the origin of the phenomenon is American individualism; a strong belief in the idea that individuals change the world. It is ridiculous really considering America is one of the most bureaucratic countries in the world. It is a dream to cover up reality, which fits very strongly with the messianic idea - that there will be one person who will come along and transform your life."
Pay differentials of over 1:100 within some American firms need justifying, though. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the myth is perpetuated. It is laughable to argue that the person at the top is one hundred times as capable, or works one hundred times as hard as those at the bottom. No, it is more comforting to believe that they earn more because they have the rare gift of leadership and everything that goes well is down to their skill and foresight. When things go wrong there is obviously a need for a new leader.
You can also listen to Amy McLeod's interview with Prof André Spicer:
Professor André Spicer is a lecturer in Organisation Studies at Warwick Business School. His research focuses on how globalisation is achieved and resisted in and around organisations. He is investigating the implications of globalisation for public broadcasters, the organization of global social movements and responses by organised labour to restructuring initiatives driven by globalisation – particularly in the port industry. Underlying this empirical research is a theoretical commitment to understanding globalisation as discursively negotiated process of re-scaling space. Prof Spicer has worked at the University of Otago (New Zealand), and University of Melbourne (Australia).
Image: Obama by Justin Sloan (via Flickr).