Navigating the leadership maze

Leadership is perhaps one of the most overly used, or even abused and poorly understood concepts in business, politics and society. A Google search for “leadership” will return almost 300m finds. The business section in your favourite bookstore has an abundant supply of courses, books, journals, research reports and titles from self-proclaimed gurus who have, quite perversely, added enormous complexity to our understanding of leadership. The available options cover the full spectrum – from great advice and sound research to psychobabble that should never have found its way into print. But which is which?

Let’s start with a few fundamentals that will be a great help already:

• The ability to lead is an essential life skill that people from every walk of life, occupation, colour, class or creed need in order to succeed.
• You have to (and can) learn how to lead effectively – it is not, as many argue, a talent or gift acquired by birth.
• In any language, country, organisation and institution, irrespective of size, location, mission or purpose, the fundamentals of leading effectively remain the same.

Are leaders only those who carry the title?

Stories of leaders and leadership can be found in the early records of humankind. The saviours, pioneers, champions, revolutionaries and activists who wrought change are admired and given the leadership badge of honour. The best in the business are game-changers who frequently end up very wealthy. They are seen to have qualities that set them apart and many have an aura of elitism about them, as many a business journal will confirm.

This has led to the popular view that leadership is largely an activity that plays out in formal organisational settings, from school sport teams to the highest echelons of government and business. But this view needs to be challenged: who is leading – the child who persuades his mother to purchase a toy, or the parent? The miner who gets the supervisor to close down an unsafe working area, or the supervisor? The professor who changes his teaching methods based on feedback from students, or the student? The spouse who gets her partner to adopt a healthier diet and exercise regime?

The pragmatic reality is that all of us, in order to get by, must have the ability to cause other people to take actions that they might typically not have taken themselves. And that is leadership.

Are leaders born or made?

This is a simple no-brainer. No research has ever identified leadership genes. We are not born with diagnostic skills or the ability to dissect or delegate tasks – we acquire them through hard learning. Effective interpersonal skills are not intuitive, and they have to be learnt. Sadly, many people choose not to learn them.

We are certainly not born with equal talent, and some have more latent potential than others. Our schooling, the manner and circumstances of early childhood, the social structures we grow up in, all play a massive role in forming our worldviews, value sets and beliefs, and our willingness to change and grow. We can’t all be world record holders in the 100m dash, but we can all train to run a little faster than yesterday.

Is leadership different from management?

The rise of management science in the early 20th century (of which Frederick Winslow Taylor is the father), is affecting business practice to this day. We still view organisations as big machines, we still think that the collective whole will be more effective if we fix the component parts, and we still view people as resources. This flawed mindset is very firmly entrenched in what managers are taught.

Organisations are very complex organisms with many variations of formal and intangible human and systems networks and interdependencies. To be successful and deliver results, every member of the organisation must understand and take up her leadership roles and responsibilities – leadership has never been, and is not, the exclusive domain of those with a management title. The tools of management are essential pieces in the leader’s toolkit, and foolish is the leader who thinks that she has an entitlement to privilege, and worse, is not required to deliver results.

Ian Dean ([email protected]) is an independent consultant and a scholar of leadership. He works internationally to help organisations improve the performance of their leaders and businesses. Hennie du Plessis ([email protected]) works as a strategy and performance consultant and uses his corporate experience to help drive positive change in organisations. This the first in a series of six articles How we made it in Africa will publish over the next two months in which they share their insights on leadership.