Process Eats Leadership For Breakfast
Is The Leader A Superhero?
The first problem with leadership is that it singles out the leader per se. Companies need to change constantly, or so they say… Therefore, they call for people able to see the meaning underlying these changes and to advocate them everywhere. Leadership is the key here. Basically, the reasoning may seem sound: leadership is a relationship through which one person influences the behavior and actions of other people. We change. As leaders, we embody the change and behave accordingly. People, empowered by the example, follow us. Great!
But then, you put too much emphasis on the person (ie the leader) herself and not enough on the group and the work environment. Suddenly you fail to make leadership effective. Why? Because, leadership effectiveness relies on different variables (1):
The characteristics of the manager (personality, attitudes, abilities, value system and her personal credibility): no doubts on that.
The type of power of the manager and the basics of the leadership relations: no questions either!
But the leader is not a superhero and then, things get complicated: leadership effectiveness relies also heavily on:
The characteristics of the subordinates (needs, expectations, experiences, knowledge, commitments: think of generation Y…)
The relationship between the manager and the group and among members of this group;
The type and nature of the organisation in which these people are;
The nature of the task to be achieved (creative? routine?)
The technology, systems of communication, and methods of work;
The organisational structure and systems of management.
Processes: 1. Leadership: 0
In most of companies, these variables are not included when calling for leadership. For the best, they are supposed to be taken care of by … the leader. Except that not any leader can change the organisational structure or the systems of communication to suit his leadership. Managers don’t have this power and are not able to seize it. They have even lost the long run vision. Quaterly results reign supreme and short run actions foster. Leadership supposes a vision rooted in deep thoughts. This vision nurtures trust between leader and her followers. Let’s face it now: instead of trust, we have processes. They were supposed to reciprocate the best practices and let us think. They are used to control everything: trust doesn’t exist anymore in the corporate world between the Board and managers. We (as managers) are losing the process war. Processes are everywhere, constraining actions and suppressing inspiration. Boards think it is the surest mean to control execution. Sure, it is! But it is starting to impede work that people are supposed to deliver in a matrix world. It also hurts leadership. Leadership is about inspiring others, setting directions and articulating compelling messages. How can you inspire others when you just comply to processes all day long? For now, on leadership, “we talk the walk” but “we don’t walk the talk”…
Leadership, a culturally biased concept
The second problem with leadership is the concept in itself. If you search for definitions and theories, you will find plenty of them: qualities or traits approach, functional or group approach, leadership as behavioral theory, styles of leadership, situational approach and contingency models, transformational leadership and inspirational leadership. Most of the articles written now are based on the last one: inspirational leadership, quite explicit in the words themselves. Probably because it is the easiest if you want to write something like “Six Must Dos As A Leader”. Inspirational leadership can …lead us to misunderstandings. On Google translator, you don’t have a French, neither an Italian word for Leadership. Does it mean something? Yes! Most of the writers are anglo-saxon or reflect this culture without making its cultural undercurrent, explicit.
Inspiritional leadership is mainly North American
Let’s frame inspirational leadership for what it is in Harvard publishing (2) or Forbes, etc. The North American culture is deeply rooted in religion (“In God they trust” is the most obvious sign). Leadership is a part of it. Any manager can speak of values, even getting personal and emotional about how he works as a leader and inspires his people by talking to them about his vision. In a way, the manager is also a preacher, leading the thinking of his community and influencing theirs choices, thereby their behavior. He is legitimate and even expected to do so.
Take the same exercise in France. The manager, who would act like this, would be listened to politely. But her words won’t reach neither their target nor their goal. Her speech will be received on a rational basis rather than welcomed first in hearts and souls. To be straight to the point, most of French (high context culture) people in this room will qualify the exercise with a word: cheesy… So long for reaching out to your followers!
Don’t get me wrong: leadership is useful but the way it is presented induces a homogeneous context everywhere. That is not the case. With too much focus on the leader, leadership presentations forgot her environment. That is a basic mistake. Therefore, when training “future leaders”, we have to be humble and give them practical keys (identifying the interpersonal skills they will need is one of them) rooted in their real context of work rather than being all on the leaders’ qualities they must have.
1: Management and Organizational Behaviour, Laurie J. Mullins, Prentice Hall.
2: Leading People, Harvard Pocket Mentor