Virtually All of Us will Lead

Right circumstances? All of us can, must, become leaders

Crook 2018

Built on the quality input of Henley Management School Cohort 1997

There is tremendous hyperbole generated regarding leadership as we hear of panacea solutions to make us all CEO, presidential or prime ministerial material. Sales hype will always be with us appealing to the emotion, the earning potential and, probably, the vanity we all require to have us motivated each morning.

Leadership is a subject, complex and often subjective. Hardly surprising given leadership entails people; people come in a great number of shapes, sizes, forms with tremendous differences inside themselves as individuals and when acting collectively.

Definitions of leadership abound, possibly the most straight forward and pertinent remains

Someone able to inspire others to accomplish something

All the business leadership books are there with the ‘Usual Suspects’ having written, or had ghost written for them, a book describing how the vision was formulated and then communicated. Politicians justifying their imperious actions with the beauty of hindsight to cover their backsides as redress is sought swifter than in the past; watch out Tony Blair. But, the vast majority of people are not talking about the leadership, management and opportunism, of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Winston Churchill. Rather, leadership is regularly about making things happen on a dull day in Slough when deadlines loom and the electric bill for the lights has yet to be covered.

What is the scope of leadership? Is it acting with those that come into direct contact or is it influencing the wider environment (leaving aside defining this environment) and making things happen well beyond your immediate circle of people listening to you? It is contended here, all environments require leadership and the skills required in the different environments are as varied as the environments themselves.

To be a leader, you have to have knowledge of yourself. To know how you work best and what your default style is. This is to say, how you normally act and react in different settings. Going beyond the normal ‘fight or flight’ of emergency settings to knowing how you communicate with others or position yourself (and why) in a meeting with one other person or a large group of people. Think on these examples:

This is not about proving your self or proving how you weigh up against others but knowing how you balance within yourself.

What you see when you look in the mirror to do your hair (or wish for more hair to do for some of us).

You have to be able to offer a knowledge of yourself that is self-effacing, values others feel they can live by and possibly seek to emulate.

Be able to project confidence; the assessment by the leader of their capability to contribute is an essential. The need for certainty (can the leader relinquish control) requires a leader to know what they can and cannot do. This is the way to build a team and add value to specific skills not just through project managing but by offering leadership.

A leader take this on board and offers a certainty taking the stressors away from those who will not have their performance enhanced by the acute stress many of us need to move us faster and catch the departing bus. A good leader will spot how others work with stressors ensuing the team functions and shields those not tolerant of stress, offering up motivation to those who savour challenges. A good leader knows their people and their own dynamics and can delegate project tasks accordingly.

Once knowing yourself, then you can challenge your normal style and use your skills to get past the ‘Task, Team, and Individual’ mnemonic to work out how you balance these three elements to deliver results. Results set not only by the task but also what you, your team members and you wish to achieve.

Culture: National and Organisational. Whether a one-person micro biz or working for ‘The Man’ in one of the multinationals, we all develop within different cultures.

Many companies wanting to dominate in their industry or even compete have to establish global operations. As firms establish their presence in new countries one of the factors they must consider is culture. Companies in the USA have been praised (e.g IBM, Hewlett Packard, GE, Microsoft to name a number of well known, ‘older’ brand names) for their success and leadership capability. Google, Amazon and Facebook are now trying to identify new ways to recruit people into ‘their’ cultures. Successful leadership in running a company in the USA does not guarantee the same “leader” would be effective in the organisation in new (external) cultures. Or does the organisation seek to transplant its culture across cultures?

Geert Hofstede was the first to undertake a study to establish the impact of cultural differences on management with the first studies beginning in the late 1960s involving 6,000 IBM employees in 40 different countries. The study asked for the preference of management style and work environment. Hofstede identified four “value” dimensions on which the countries observed differed:

  • Power distance, indicates the extent to which a society accepts the unequal distribution of power in institutions and organisations.
  • Uncertainty avoidance, refers to a society’s discomfort with uncertainly, preferring predictability and stability
  • Individualism/collectivism refers to the extent to which people prefer to take care of themselves and their immediate families, remaining unemotionally independent from groups, organisations and other collectives
  • Masculinity/femininity dimensions reveal the bias towards either “masculine” values of assertiveness, competitiveness, competitiveness and materialism, or towards “feminine” values of nurturing and the quality of life and relationships.

Given the differences in value orientations, Hofstede questioned whether American theories could be applied abroad and discussed the consequences of cultural differences in terms of:

  • Motivation,
  • Leadership and
  • Organisation

Hofstede did not differentiate motivation from incentive. Something apparent during the last half century is the rise of how capitalism has been questioned as concentration of wealth has left the social ethos of enterprise in some notable cultural settings. With the power of machine learning now far greater, other factors are at play with organisations able to discern different behaviours, the basis of culture, within a country. The capability to individually target placing information reinforcing beliefs brings new connotations to leading us to the point of managing our thinking.

An understanding of these elements becomes the basis of the (much more) involved work used to manipulate how we act as individuals and collectively across and through different media. The appealing to different, motivational, factors, has caused us to become further subdivided into groups, social categories or factions whilst still appealing to the individual desire to be different. Massaging the ego whilst manipulating the responses through an understanding of motivational factors.

Hofstede argued the following about cultures found to cluster in one of the “value” dimensions

  • Power distance culture is attuned to hierarchical structures and authoritarian style.
  • High uncertainty avoidance cultures place emphasis on written rules and procedure. In these cultures emphasis on job specialisation is apparent.
  • In high collectivist orientation cultures, the group is the central focal point. Co-operation is more valued than individual work and the leader facilitates teamwork and tries to create a supportive atmosphere.
  • In countries with high masculinity orientation the leaders are more concerned with the accomplishment of the task – organisations place great emphasis on bottom-line results.
  • High femininity cultures demonstrate concern for social responsibility.

For example a leader from a low power distance culture moving to a high distance culture many be perceived as ineffective since team members, subordinates, are used to a different approach.

How are we all to grow as people? Or is this our fate? How do we impact cultural settings? Some of which are subjugating masses of people because of the approach, regularly reinforced, by those holding power and influence in certain cultures?

Organisational culture influences what leadership style is effective. From an organisational point of view Charles Handy puts forward the following four organisational cultures:

  • Role culture: procedures laid down (equating to high uncertainty national culture)
  • Power culture: frequently found in small entrepreneurial organisations. Everything revolves around a personality – points of Greiner’s Model and how to know how to develop is critical here
  • Task culture: The job or project dominates. Leadership is about facilitating.
  • Person culture: Minimal structure and often spontaneous forming of groups to achieve specific needs. Today’s western family is seen as exemplifying without a nuclear grouping, indeterminate and multiple roles beyond core expertise.

Essentially this means culture should not be seen as an inhibitor to leadership but as an arbiter as to what style is effective.

Managing or supervising; the delivery of a task – A number of variables act when a task or situation is being assessed. Where there are constraints, of time, understanding or unclear objectives, a style of directive leadership is often effective.In contrast when there are fewer constraints an open, delegating style can be appropriate. The styles run through and must be placed into the cultural aspects. For example, a masculine, uncertainty avoidance culture with a role culture tends to reinforce the telling of what to do. A person culture with feminine culture lends itself to delegating.

  • Telling: subordinates unable or unwilling to take responsibility. The leader “tells” eliminating risk of misunderstanding.
  • Selling: The leader knows people are willing but unable to take events forward. The leader directs and motivates people.
  • Participating: The leader supports and motivates the wider team.
  • Delegating: Leadership empowers people to complete the task.

If the leader is capable of changing styles then they will be able to manage in a variety of situations. Or, if the leader is able to assess situations then they can select the opportunity to work to their leadership style.

Increasingly tasks are multifaceted and complex allowing, if not requiring, a number of people to share the functions of “leadership”. The response in numerous organisations has been the development of matrix structures requiring a style where leadership has to suit the results as perceived by those working on a particular project regularly requiring interpreting higher-level goals for more immediate targets requiring different “leadership” skills.

Two points are emergent here. Firstly the practical issues of management and leadership are apparent. In a matrix setting, regularly the manager will not have, should not have, a leadership role on specific pieces of work. Constantly leadership will fall with specific technical expertise granting a person confidence and capability to take forward, lead, specific targets in a complex setting. Clearly this is dependent on the overall cultural setting and such a matrix style is regularly challenging for those from, say, an extended power distance setting with high uncertainty avoidance. This is where it is not so much a country culture as generational and gender cultures being challenged.

Secondly, linked to this point of country, is the manner we continue to have power distance cultures imposed on us with an overt masculine structure. Despite positive moves in social democracy and social capitalism the overall political tendency has been for the reinforcement of hierarchy and the closing of personal space. This is despite perceptions of greater freedoms through multimedia capability to express one’s self but, invariably, the proposition is made, echoing the sentiments of those already in positions of power and influence.

This raises questions as to whether you are a subordinate, a follower, or a team member. One challenge comes from the common observation that effective leadership is a function of the relationship the English language naturally sets – to lead or to follow.

The leader’s behaviour should depend on the stage of development of the group, team or structure being led as well as the maturity of the leader and followers relationship. This is where the business and organisational leadership and management diverge from the political leadership. Regularly these lines have blurred as business leaders have stepped across to be politicians and politicians in a number of settings are manipulating situations to take on business roles. Add in where bureaucrats and technocrats are now playing a political role with politicians stepping into these roles regularly in, for example, the case of the European Commission, and we see how leadership is now being used within far wider settings.

When a leadership situation is considered, a number of factors come to the fore: what are the groupings within those being led? Does a leader appeal to positive motivational factors, incentives or a shared identity? Or perhaps the all too common use of external threat nowadays. What is the mood within the group? What kind of relationship does the leader have with those they are seeking to lead? Look at the classic example of the United Kingdom and the present Prime Minister – a leader for whom? Achieving what goals? Through what processes with what knowledge of their immediate people and, most crucially, what realism with regard to their own skills to influence wider for people to follow. The contrast could be Canada where the Prime Minister is doing all things mirroring sentiments of key, influencing, opinions. ‘Leading by following’ in essence the illustration of machine learning in this big data age.

In both cases, the environment is critical. Canada has a relatively settled environment whereby the ‘leading by following’ is the way to go since it is possible to be all things to all people in a stable situation where few if any crises are looming. With regard to the United Kingdom, the lacklustre leadership and paucity of management has created an environment where everyone has an opinion but few are willing to step forward and offer leadership since it will alienate as many as it draws together. Businesses, where the goals are clearer, have had leaders speak out. Some analyst will contend there are CEOs who fall short on their own management credentials when business continuity and the future of the organisation are concerned. As political agendas are allowed to interfere with shareholder value (or in some key business cases, personal agendas of founders or key individuals) we are seeing outspoken statements which may not be what an organisation needs in terms of leadership or management.

New theories and models continue to be developed in an attempt to better define leadership. Issues of vision, self-knowledge, culture, and environment in the organisation and wider traits found in a country or nation are critical. Johnson’s work provides a mnemonic to summarise.


Where L is the leader and his self-awareness

S is the working situation in which the leader is operating noting the breadth of situation incorporating people, place, time and dynamics of events.

O is the organisation

A equates to the activities – some things are far more complex to lead, and follow, on than others.

R represents results achieved through the interaction indicated by the flows

V depicts the vision developed to give purpose – this is where vision

Leadership is an intangible and the qualities of what makes an effective leader will continue to be debated as long as we have need for leadership.

Social media inspired re-examination of leaders is now reassessing every situation removed from the realities of the setting at the time. How many of us can truly say we have the confidence, fortitude, to take critical decisions where lives are won or lost with the ‘simple’ act of saying – Yes, go for it.

When we assess the environment and ourselves we all have the opportunity to be an effective leader. Shamefully, many in power do not have honest self-perception or continue to work with delusions of capability. Capability to assess the cultural aspects of followers is also under question as the Internet removes many undertaking work on political economic analysis from the realities of culture in places where leadership is much needed now.

Leadership, a very human trait (or is it?), is needed in bucket loads. Yet we see the (alarming) setting where more and more are using machine learning to influence social opinion and then play to follow the trends – Leading by following, not leading at all.

Leadership is possible everywhere, by everybody.

Leadership requires us to ask difficult questions: of ourselves, the situations we are in or will be in.

Stand up, be a leader and ask questions. Do not accept bland answers. Challenge the status quo. Leadership is for everyone, as everyone is capable of knowing their inner self and being aware of the situation they wish to influence – Be someone. Inspire yourself, and others, to accomplish something.

Someone able to inspire others to accomplish something

Lead on.

Schein’s work

Situational Leadership