Over the weekend we have been clearing out and tidying up the office.  In the process I have been sorting out the books which pile up on the floor and putting them back in their rightful places. I came across some old but interesting books on leadership which led me to contemplate if we truly ever learn anything about leadership, and why does it seem that the subject of good leadership get sidetracked by attitudes, fashion and fads?

The question of what makes a good leader has been discussed for centuries; ancient philosophers like Plato considered that a good leader was defined by the Four Temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic), and while modern theories involve a psychological analysis of a leader’s personality, in truth there are more similarities than differences. Even today there are those that still accept Plato’s ideas and one of the most current assessments of those four temperaments, ‘Personality Dimensions’, was only brought out in 2003, using the modern research of Linda Berens and  David Keirsey, among others.

So, as the French say, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Surely, the wide variety of theories, explanations and styles of leadership must create confusion for those who are trying hard to become the best leader they can be.  What theory should they adopt?  What style would bring the best results?  Can one just be themselves and take it as it comes?  Can I ever get off this leadership roundabout?

The industrial psychologist (yes we even have those) Warren Bennis suggests that there are  7 Attributes of Leadership’ – to go along with ‘6 Things Leaders must Know’; and ‘5 Things that Leaders must Do’ on top of Plato’s ‘4 Temperaments’ I suppose.

These Seven attributes (repeat after me) are technical competence; conceptual skill; track record; people skills; recognition of talent; judgement and character.

The amazing thing is in the ephemeral nature of the attributes; there is not one that we would not instinctively agree with as being necessary to any leader at any level; but what precisely do we understand by, well… conceptual skills for instance?

And what ‘people skills’ does a leader really need; in fact what exactly do you understand ‘people skills’ to mean?

For instance – any military leader wants to achieve the objective and keep their soldiers alive.  We try our best to do that by continuous drill so that instinct would take over in the real situation and that means a lot of yelling and shouting in the training stage.  But yelling and shouting were not a recommended part of the people skills that leaders were being taught. We knew what we needed to do, but we were being taught we shouldn’t do it.

I’m beginning to get suspicious of leadership by cliché’s; and I’m starting to believe that we are focused on the wrong thing.

Leaders are just one link in the chain and to consider them in isolation can lead us to emphasise the wrong things. In reality they are just one cog in a great big wheel, and their leadership must be executed in that swirling confusion that makes up the normal working day.

And then let us never forget that without followers, leaders are useless.  So instead of concentrating on what leaders should do, think, or feel – let us look at what the followers need and want from their leaders.

Even Bennis realised that every team leader faces the challenge of meeting their team’s expectations; and really they are basic.

Everybody who faces a day at ‘work’ needs to have some meaning to that work and have a clear sense of direction.  Team members need to understand where their contribution fits into the whole picture – so what does a Leader need to do to answer that expectation?

Surely it is the leader’s role to outline the purpose of the work, highlight the value of the contribution and set it into context. If this leads to setting goals and objectives, then fine; but it may not always be that cut and dried; and a leader may chose to meet those expectation in quite a different way. This is a requirement that may be interpreted differently by different leaders in different circumstances – but the expectation will remain the same.

Secondly, Bennis suggests we consider the necessity for Trust. Team members need to believe that they are respected for their knowledge and experience and trusted for their quality.  So how will a Leader react to that expectation?  Building relationships and being inclusive will achieve much, but as we can see from my military example, not every situation will respond to an academically preferred style; and anyway different people build relationships differently. Again the expectation must be answered but the leader may choose vastly different solutions to those expounded by Leadership gurus.

And then there is the expectation that the team will be able to rely on and trust the integrity of their leader. In any discussion of ethics we are always surprised by the variety of interpretation of the words ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’.  Different cultures and society norms instill different standards and behaviours which are deemed acceptable, and even these change over time. So what is it exactly that we mean when we use the words ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’?  Do we get our working standards from our instinctive understanding of moral behaviour – or are we willing to compromise on those to achieve company expectations, at the risk of losing out on our team’s expectations. Is the prize always worth the cost?

Bennis continues with other expectations, but I’ll leave it there because I really wanted to make the point that while expectations can be specific and itemised; interpretation and implementation of meeting those expectations cannot be so rigidly outlined.

But that is what we would love to have; a definitive solution that works in all situations.  And that is a false expectation that many leadership theories seem to sell us.  If we do A then we will get B; with an unspoken assumption that it will always be that way.  Alas we know only too well that it is not true, and yet we still try!

When I was facing a problem which I couldn’t resolve, what was my fail safe solution?  Ring someone up to ask for advice of course. Isn’t that what mentors and coaches are there for?  How many times have you reached for the phone and wailed ‘What can I do?”  or “How can I fix this?”.

So perhaps all those theories and books are just pandering to our requirement to be told what to do.  Alas, no matter who is giving advice (and this includes me), they can only give suggestions that may have worked for them, but it will be you, the leader on the spot that has to make your choice of action

Leadership! -Will we ever learn? Well; yes, I think so, but it will be in our time, our place, with our people and our choices – and the learning will be personal.  Then of course we will probably sit down and write a book about it to confuse other people…. or possibly even write a blog with the same result – sorry about that!

Michele @ Trischel

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