Expert Opinion

Leaders - What are they good for?

Do those appointed as leaders in their organisations really understand how leadership is working in their organisations? Jeff Gold, Professor of Organisation Learning at Leeds Met, contemplates the changing role of the leader.

For much of the last century and into the present, there has been a search for the Holy Grail of leadership – its meaning, its precise practice and how it can benefit organisations and society as a whole: in short, what it looks like and how to do it. There is confusion about whether we have found it; a quick search on Google for leadership models for example, reveals 129, 000, 000 hits in 0.21 seconds. Click here and look at the many, many colourful images of leadership models.

What becomes quickly obvious is that most models conflate leaders with leadership so that it becomes assumed that those appointed as leaders do the leading and others follow. During the 1980s, in the face of emerging global pressures and changing technologies, attention switched to a search for individuals who had transformational qualities such as charisma, who could generate commitment and motivation, to empower others by providing both vision and sense of direction. In many companies there has been significant investment in developing transformational leaders, using instruments such as the multifactor leadership questionnaire. Sadly, for the investment, recent evidence suggests little link of this idea of leadership and organisation performance, and a suggestion to abandon the approach altogether and starting again.

So where do we go from here? One of the main problems is our continuation with the view that leaders are individual agents, while there is growing evidence that indicates that this focus only serves to represent one of a number of patterns in a mix of leadership configurations where individuals are variably contrasted against pairs, groups, teams and collectives. Further, at a time when many organisations are composed of increasingly intelligent staff who undertake knowledge-based work, often in dispersed and virtual places of work, it is not surprising that the focus on individuals as leaders starts to fall apart. If so much of work relies on leadership configurations, those who are appointed as leaders with accountability for results are bound to face what I call a conundrum of leadership. The basics of this conundrum are:

  1. leaders are expected to be in control
  2. leadership is beyond the control of any one individual

However, given that appointed leaders are accountable for performance and results, there are some possibilities for how they can embrace the conundrum. Start by going back to a story that appeared in the Guardian.

You might consider this to be another example of an ‘inspirational’ leader who brought about change in ‘heroic’ style. But read it more carefully. How does Tim Brighouse account for what was achieved? How did he, as appointed leader, embrace the conundrum? What does he mean by 99% hard work? And what did this do for others?

Professor Jeffrey Gold

Professor / Leeds Business School

Jeff Gold is Professor of  Organisation Learning at Leeds Business School. He is a strong advocate of the need for actionable knowledge that is rigorously developed but relevant for practice. 

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