Business at Oxford | Star leaders alone won’t do

Business at Oxford | Star leaders alone won’t do
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First Published: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 12 13 AM IST

Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
Updated: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 12 13 AM IST
Is there a difference between a good leader and good leadership? The distinction may be subtle, but I believe that there is.
Traditionally, leadership, as distinct from management, has been considered an individual endeavour. We are often seduced by the Jack Welch syndrome — the image of the leader as an inspirational, larger-than-life personality.
Illustration: Malay Karmakar / Mint
In this view of leadership, leaders are born, not made (managers, on the other hand, can be made). We think of the successful leader as someone who has vision; who inspires; who has high visibility within his or her organization; and who acts as a source of ultimate authority.
But, rather than considering successful leadership to be dependent upon a charismatic figure who sits at the top of a hierarchy, it is perhaps more useful, and increasingly more relevant, to think about leadership as a collective endeavour and an ongoing process that is dispersed throughout an organization. This is even more pertinent when we consider that in today’s business environment, the traditional corporate hierarchies that supported a top-down leadership modus operandi have shifted: We now operate within more complicated organizations, exposed to a greater degree of ambiguity and a seemingly ever-increasing pace of change.
Good leadership is not about direction from the top — it is about creating the conditions for people and organizations to thrive. It is about enabling individuals and teams to operate effectively, yet with a strong sense of collective responsibility. This has implications at both the individual and organizational levels.
For good leadership to happen, certain key dimensions must be in place — at the strategic, operational and interpersonal levels.
Almost by definition, no individual is able to excel in each of these domains. A leader with excellent interpersonal skills may be less strong on operational details; conversely, a leader with highly sophisticated strategic skills may be less able in the interpersonal domain. No one person can be a complete leader alone.
Wise leaders appreciate what they can contribute — and what it is that they cannot. They do not think of themselves as complete, and they do not aspire to be so: They will have a balanced assessment of their strengths and a sharp understanding of their weaknesses. On the basis of this understanding, they will put in place the people with complementary skills and components that together create a leadership team and capability that is more than the sum of its parts.
If we begin to view leadership as something that occurs throughout an organization — which works outwards, across informal networks, as well as downwards, along formal reporting lines — we find that the less glamorous, less visible, components of leadership become more important.
Leadership is not just about the one-off speech and the call to action — it is about sustaining momentum, carrying people along, negotiating and managing resources, and making the right decisions, big or small. It is about getting things done by delegating responsibilities.
Moving away from paternalistic forms of leadership can be empowering. Rather than fostering obedient executors of commands, we are seeing the emergence of environments that favour a more entrepreneurial leadership mindset and style.
Organizations which can tolerate ambiguity and which have in-built flexibility can nurture and support a dispersed set of decision-making, risk-taking individuals who are prepared to go out on a limb.
These entrepreneurial leaders are allowed to innovate and negotiate in order to make things happen and sometimes achieve exceptional results. These may be individuals who have no formal reporting lines or direct management responsibilities, but who are, nevertheless, empowered to play a very active role within the leadership process.
So, what can organizations and leaders do to help facilitate the leadership process?
There is always a danger that we recruit and promote people in our own image and, in so doing, replicate both our strengths and our weaknesses. For leadership to happen, the opposite should occur. It is only when we take frank stock of our own shortcomings that we can begin to seek out answering strengths in others.
We also need to be mindful of the less glamorous aspects of leadership, taking into account in our decision-making the people, processes and planning that need to be in place if we are to move beyond the inspirational moments of leadership and sustain momentum, build relationships, lead through networks and follow through on our plans.
As a programme director who has been involved in the education of senior executives for many years, I have observed the ways in which executive development has increasingly sought to combine in-depth understanding of the individual self with a very practical immersion in, and engagement with, the specifics of workplace context — exploring and strengthening the links between self-understanding, organizational structure and business performance through one-on-one coaching and mentoring, as well as group learning. Leaders need to recognize that they can only play a part in a process that is bigger than themselves. Leaders also have to develop a clear understanding of their own weaknesses and the strengths of others. These first steps often require that we be both reflective and receptive, brave and humble.
Tim Morris is co-director of the Oxford High Performance Leadership Programme, (www.sbs.ox.ac.uk/ execed/leadership/hpl/), academic director of the Clifford Chance Centre, and professor of management studies at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
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First Published: Mon, Jul 07 2008. 12 13 AM IST