Essay, Leadership, MBA

An essay on leadership

By Ahmed Ali on August, 21 2018
Ahmed Ali

Ahmed Ali, Ducere's Senior Research Executive, challenges preconceptions of leadership in this essay. If there is one thing talked about frequently in scholarly theories, but yet continues to vex endless argument, is the question on ‘the accurate definition of best leadership’ or ‘can leadership be taught’?

Think about those books you see when you walk through an airport bookshop and look at all the books discussing, ‘7 steps to becoming a successful leader’ or the ‘11 golden rules never to break for being a good leader’, and ask yourself – is there really a structured formula that can be prescribed for anyone who is aspiring to become the best leader?

Those theoretical exercises would trigger three important points about leadership:

  • Why do people think that there is a prescribed way that leadership is taught, such as the ‘6 best’ or ‘7 golden’ or ‘10 modern...’?
  • Why do people think there is a structured formula for being a leader? And, if we knew what the formula was to being a great leader, why would everyone not become one?
  • Look at all the array of books about teaching leadership skills and leadership development programs. Is this too simplistic? Is leadership as easy as following a formula? Isn’t leadership a very complicated issue?
  • Why do we only talk about leaders and the skills to become great leaders? How about the followers? A simple Google search yields thousands of books on leadership but very little on followership. So what does that tell us about the dynamic of the world? Do we all want to be in charge and no one wants to follow?

I’m not going to try and find the best definition of leadership – that would be an irony given that I was just arguing against preaching a “one leadership style fits all” theory. What I will try to do is bring different perspectives from the Ducere Global Leaders Faculty (GLF) which encompasses some of the world’s most successful individuals including Prime Ministers and Nobel Prize Laureates.

The GLF have been selectively targeted and meticulously interviewed on a range of subjects specific to the courses we offer. I hope they will provide multiple perspectives on why leaders are important and what they mean to different people.

Let’s start with what many people generally agree leadership is: Leadership and management is different.

Leadership is all about getting the most out of people/organisations/countries etc. As I said before I don’t really believe in a ready-made leadership style theory. I actually believe that leadership comes as a result of a situation where a particular group of people need to be led. However, there needs to be the essential quality of a leader at the very beginning of the journey or you are not going to succeed.

That essential quality is said to be a strong set of beliefs. It is believed that you can refine the other leadership qualities over time. 

Before embarking into the details let me make it clear that by leaders I do not mean managers. Let’s look at Dr. Simon Longstaff’s explanation of the two to further clarify what I mean.

“I see leaders and managers as very different. Look at managers and imagine a cork in a stream and there are people on the cork and the managers need to pull the levers and push the buttons that keep the cork stable and operating as it ought to do. But they’d go wherever the stream takes it.”

That’s not true of leaders. Leaders are never simply taken where the ‘cork’ is flowing. They always look to steer it, to have a sense of its proper purpose in the direction which it ought to be moving.

Now that we have differentiated leaders and managers, what do we mean by leadership coming as a result of a situation and the particular group of people that need to be led?
Certainly, you can be elected or appointed to authority and have leadership conferred on you, but I don’t think that's quite the same thing. This doesn’t necessarily make you a leader, although it may confer a certain authority of position on you. A real leader must be prepared to take chances when dealing with either adversity or opportunity.

The critical issue is whether leaders come to understand that leadership is an ethical practice. Other people tend to think that leadership is something that you do, and then you insert or inject a bit of ethics in it to keep it on balance. Leaders understand that leadership is an ethical practice in the sense that it is, by definition, something that requires you to engage in reflective practice with moral courage.

Leaders will be successful if they are able to create the space for the followers and make them very successful. A good sign of leadership is when the leader encourages his/her group to do better than they think they can, and is able to provoke them into doing something even more spectacular. That’s the real job of a leader.

Former Australian Chief of Defence, Admiral Chris Barrie points out that leaders can get the most out of some people by giving them as much autonomy as possible. Here’s how he put it:
“Other people actually benefit more from having more of that interaction and time together and working together interactively. For example, if they're working on a project, that individual might work far better by coming to you on a regular basis and checking in with you, and saying to you, “Look, this is where I’m up to. This is what I’ve done this week. These are the challenges.” I think the best way to get the most out of people is understanding their mode and their style and how they work best, and fitting within that.”

Inspiring people is often mentioned as an important characteristic of leaders.

Inspiration could come in different forms, so there are many ways, other than pure financial reward, you can use to get the most out of individuals. True leaders inspire people to do that.

The hard question is how you can make people, who wake up on a Monday morning and think about going to work, be excited by the opportunities they're going to have that day. How do you make them say, “I'm trusted and valued in the organisation”?

The Hon. John Howard believes that one way of inspiring people is encouraging people to speak their minds and listen to them. Here is what he has to say when asked about how he creates personal development for the people that work for him and what sort of people should be on his close team.

‘Well, certainly not people that are like me. I wouldn't keep a dog and bark myself, would I? I want people who are different to me. And then I want to create an atmosphere in which they can say what they really think, not what they expect me to hear. And I think that’s also very critical. Actually, I think, the secret to leadership success is that you can get diverse opinions, you can get energy, and you can be made to think about a lot of things that you're not doing right”.

A leader should be a good listener to the people immediately around him. It’s a mistake to think that a successful leader is somebody who is always barking out orders and bullying people into following them. Nowadays, it has almost become a cliché to ask leaders what the qualities of their leadership are. What can you respond to if someone asked you what are their qualities? Courage? Decisiveness? intelligence? Shrewdness?

The problem is always with the question not the answer because having leadership qualities by itself doesn’t mean that the outcome is always good.

I mean, Hitler was obviously an effective leader, but he was an extraordinarily evil man. So the possession of leadership qualities does not always translate to desirable outcomes. That really depends on the individual. Again, I think it depends on whether they're prepared to take their chances when those chances arise and the way that they deal with either adversity or opportunity. Another literature cliché is asking leaders ‘who is your role model?’ The problem in here is in the question not the answer because models should always be seen within the context of contemporary history.

The Hon. John Howard’s response when asked about this was:

“I’m often asked about role models. I always find it hard to answer it in terms of a role model as distinct from some people in history and politics who I have most admired. For example, the person I most admire is Winston Churchill, without a question. I thought he made the greatest possible leadership contribution to the 20th century, but I can’t see him as a role model, because he operated in an environment that was somewhat different from mine.”

So back to the main question: What are the qualities of leadership? The Hon. Steve Bracks, former premier of Victoria, elaborates his version of leadership.

“I had three mantras which operated, and I used to say this all the time to the team that I worked with—that is, the caucus, the MPs, the cabinet. One was unity—extremely important. Disunity is death, and there’s no question about it. If you're not unified, well, then how can you expect people to support you as well? The second is focus – focus on your agenda, what you want to achieve. Don't be distracted, because that’s extremely important in making sure that people understand what your government is about or what your party is about, in the case before government. The third quality is discipline. I’ve probably said on every occasion in the cabinet—which we met once a week—and every occasion in our party room in the caucus, “Unity, focus, and discipline.” I think they could all recite it over a period of time. And coupled with that was not forgetting how hard it was to get there.”

For Ducere Chancellor, The Hon. Julia Gillard, the greatest challenge for any leader is decision making. This is what she has to say.

“But something that I think we’ve really got to focus on is resilience and coping strategies. It’s not easy to take on the mantle of being a leader. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Tony Blair talk about leadership, and one of the phrases he uses is: Once you decide, you divide. 
That is, in many ways, the dilemma faced by a leader. If you make a decision, then some people will agree with you and some people won’t. And to have the resilience so that you cannot be wounded, hurt, or immobilised by the fact that people disagree with you, I think is a very important thing. And beyond the rigours of leadership, I think for children today having an ability to take the knocks and get back up to cope with change, to cope with working lives that will see many transitions, we do have to think of better ways to impart resilience skills.”

Inevitably, not all decisions that are made in politics, business, or life, are the correct ones. Making mistakes is not a problem. Doing nothing for fear of making mistakes is the worst mistake. As the African proverb says “There are many who don't wish to sleep for fear of nightmares”.

Leadership should not be about not making mistakes, it is about knowing the best way to respond when a decision has backfired or a problematic error has been made. Decision-making is a quality of leaders. In fact that is why leadership is said to be a process of learning.

History has proven that you learn more from bad leaders than you do from good. When we work with good leaders, we just accept this is the way it ought to be. When we work with bad leaders, we’re always watching and learning about what not to do. So if you think about the life’s journey in the leadership trail, we learn more from bad than good. It’s very interesting.

The Late Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser eloquently put it this way.

“Having a sense of history is one of the things that has been so lacking in world leaders today. Leaders need a sense of history.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ducere.


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