So Many Paths

Much has been written, and much more will continue to be written, on the subject of leadership.

There are many differing schools of thought regarding what makes a truly a great leader and new theories constantly emerge. The leader as ‘hero’ is beguiling.  A strong leader with the ability to create a commitment to achieving a visionary future is an attribute that is often seen as differentiating leaders from mere managers.  At their best visionaries rely heavily on their own values, and they invest in people, giving them a sense of purpose and direction but allowing them to decide on the details.  Hierarchy and structure mean little as they make decisions and shape their vision based on their values, beliefs, and sense of identity. They can be extremely satisfying to work with. However there is a major problem with most visionary ‘Hero’ leaders: they tend to ignore the short-term stability and day-to-day functioning of the organisation.  They may also carry too much personal responsibility making them stressed – leading to ineffective decision making.

This makes visionary leaders exciting but risky and in truth most organisations tend to turn to managerial leaders as a more preferable alternative.

Managers need order and stability and want control of all the details. They have little or no personal attachment towards the goals and they may have limited empathy with employees. They control through rewards, punishment, and possibly coercion. Leader/managers are focused on the cost-benefit of actions and will therefore be mostly linked to the short-term financial health of the organization, as reflected in its day-to-day share price. Short-term gains are the result of a least-cost approach, which is likely to stifle investment and might not be good for long-term viability.

And this brings me to my real concern.

I see many businesses hiring a visionary leader, setting the direction and empowering the teams only to lose their nerve after a year or two and put a strong managerial type in place to ensure delivery.  The team, being used to having an open culture and being free to run their own departments, are challenging for the manager/leader to handle .  So those that look like they may not toe the line are rapidly removed and  a cosy ‘yes sir’ culture develops.  As the business runs out of steam the board put in a new visionary leader to create some energy and ideas – she finds the executive team  are too ‘passive’ and replaces them with ‘self starters’ although probably with a good deal more empathy and dignity than a managerial leader would muster.

And so the cycle repeats.

This isn’t great for business and it’s truly terrible for the lives and careers of those who are victims of the changing styles.

Given that none of the above seems ideal, a blend of the two leadership types might prove better.  Not a middle ground but a true combination of both. And there are some examples of great visionary leaders who surround themselves with great managers.  Richard Branson has famously had a succession of strong managers sitting alongside him to great effect.  An individual leader who can combine both approaches would be much more than the sum of the parts.  An alternative approach that is currently gaining ground is that of Stewardship, combining not only the visionary and managerial styles but also adding sustainability to the mix.

It isn’t unthinkable but it is unlikely that many such leaders will naturally emerge without careful nurturing.

Stewardship leadership requires a truly holistic view of the business, it’s stakeholders and the environment it operates in.  Steward leaders are likely to be very self aware, resilient, flexible and liberal.  These are not skills that can simply be taught in a classroom – experiential learning is crucial.  Steward leadership takes real courage and authenticity to move away from the accepted norms of Hero or Manager.

Given that developing the next generation of leaders is the role of the CEO and the CEO is likely to conform to one of the traditional types this poses a real issue.

The best HR Executives are starting to face up to this problem,  others will keep repeating the cycle.

There are so many paths up the mountain
Nobody knows all the ways
There are so many paths up the mountain
And the view from the top is still the same

Little River Band – So Many Paths


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