Why we need to move away from the cult of the leader

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This article was written by Erik de Haan and John Higgins and was originally published on June 25, 2015 on www.ashridge.org.uk/insights

Much of what we do and see on a daily basis revolves around the modern culture of self-improvement, with many of us caught up in the desire to achieve the flawless body, the well balanced lifestyle, or the perfect mind. But perfect isn’t always possible, and it can get in the way of our ability to move forward, especially when leading a team at work.

In our executive coaching and organisational consulting practice, we invite leaders to question whether such idealism affects their ability to lead their team. Does their experience of fallibility clash with internal hopes of infallibility? Do their SMART objectives leave room for common sense or human error? In large organisations and global corporations we have seen idealistic tendencies, starting as a powerful and positive force for ambition and improvement, increasingly go into overdrive. The last thirty years have seen ‘transformational’ leadership become the dominant model of business, promoting the idea that a single leader can ‘turn around’ whole organisations, markets and cultures.

If you really think about ‘transformational leadership’ you realise how unsustainable a model it is. Not even the elite of the business world can claim to be omnipotent, let alone all-knowing or invulnerable, as this model demands. Most real-life business leaders do not have the faintest idea what goes on deep inside their businesses, or at the interface with their clients and customers – quite possibly they do not need to know, were it not for the expectation that they should understand and control every aspect of the business.

The transformational leadership model not only requires an unsustainable amount of work from leaders to maintain it, but places overriding emphasis on leadership ‘success’, as determined by stardom, glamour and personal achievement rather than integrity, bottom-line results, and the ability to get things done through others. In other words, transformational leadership prioritises leadership success (in terms of, for example, staying in the job and promotions) over leadership effectiveness (for example, helping to grow the organisation’s bottom line or fostering a close-knit and successful team). With top business leaders in some Western countries now earning hundreds of times the average income of their employees in their organisations, it is beginning to look as though, in our desire to believe in the supremely influential and positive contributions of leadership, we have created a collective ‘cult of the leader’.

However, the tide is changing. Scholars and coaching practitioners are beginning to rediscover the fact that all professionals have the ability to participate in the leadership of their organisation, and that it is perhaps a healthy attribute of organisational (top) leadership if many employees are indeed involved. The benefits of distributed leadership are increasingly recognised, and this recognition calls into question the assumption that leadership talent is a scarce resource only available at the top. Maybe leadership talent or at least ‘good enough leadership’ actually exists in abundance, amongst the rank and file of employees, rather than in one perfect individual.

But what does this sort of leadership look like? We have identified five essentials for leaders who want to be truly effective and take up their leadership responsibilities in full:

Understand and own your dark side
Know your own weaknesses as well as how others will react to the shadow of your authority, or your ‘Leadership Shadow’. Adapt your approach to leading to compensate accordingly.

Involve others
Even leaders need feedback, so make sure you have colleagues you can count on to give you ‘upwards feedback’, including the bits which are difficult to hear.

Define what leadership means to you
What it is for, and what does ‘good’ leadership look like in your organisational context? Planning your approach will improve your ability to respond effectively.

Success does not equal effectiveness
Remember that ‘successful’ leadership and ‘effective’ leadership are not the same. Don’t get side-tracked into self-aggrandisement, hubris (or overbearing pride) and overdrive patterns.

Facilitate the leadership of others
There is wisdom in crowds, and consulting the many rather than the few will engage employees. Things may not be ‘perfect’, but they will enable you to reassess and prioritise within a realistic framework.

 

Erik de Haan is the Director of Ashridge Executive Education’s Centre for Coaching with over twenty years of experience in organisational and personal development. He aims to support individuals in their search for what is right and just for themselves and for others in their organisations. His expertise covers process consulting for organisational change, facilitating management teams, working conferences, executive and team coaching.

John Higgins is a researcher, author and coach who tries to get the off-the-record of organisational experience onto-the-record. He works intimately with established and aspiring leaders from all walks of life – encouraging them to find ways of marrying their personal and professional contexts. He believes that people have two choices when it comes to understanding why they lead (or follow) the way they do – either they embrace their past and shadow, or they are consumed by them.

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