Leadership crises: a problem of performance or of expectations?

Our newspapers, TV news channels and social media regularly highlight the plight of leaders facing difficult challenges, or of organisations facing what is almost always characterised as a ‘leadership crisis’. Depending when you read this article, you will no doubt think of several examples, but we are thinking of one case in particular: the circumstances of the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, as highlighted in an FT article of 21 March.

Following a previous year that the FT had already classified as “an annus horribilis for the UK’s financial regulator”, talk of ‘leadership crisis’ is perhaps predictable: post-Panama, ‘financial conduct’ in its broadest sense is unlikely to be rarely far from the headlines.

We would, however, argue that it is predictable not just as a reflection of the seemingly endless eruption of scandals and record-breaking fines – and the current occupation of the FCA CEO’s chair by an ‘acting’ replacement for a predecessor we already know will not be re-appointed. The latter point, however, might be more telling: as with Presidents ineligible for re-election, there is another two-word phrase that the media often rush to use. Lame duck.

But when we take issue with – or show only lukewarm enthusiasm for – ‘leadership’, are we assessing performance, or are we revealing our own preconceptions of what it means to be a leader?

At the most basic level, are we being swayed by the myth of the strong, heroic leader? While the table-thumping, crusading hero (or, although probably not, heroine) is a compelling image, great leadership is actually about being collegiate and inclusive.

The great leader works with and within their team or organisation, rather than charging a few paces ahead in glorious isolation.

The myth is attractive because our thinking about leadership is so often leader-centric: mentally, we place leaders on a pedestal, standing – metaphorically at least – head and shoulders above everyone else. Again, the imagery is compelling, but it inverts the real dependency: leaders need followers more than followers need leaders.

The duty of the leader is not to order but to inspire; without this, leadership becomes a long, lonely walk.

Thinking about leadership in a way that sets in stone its relationship to others also leads us to see it as fixed and rigid in other ways. Our leader, we like to think, is an invincible personification of rigidly defined values and behaviours who will behave in the same way – if not heroically then at least very firmly – regardless of context or circumstance.

In truth, the opposite is true.

Leadership is about relationships, both to circumstances and to others.

A leader who does not acknowledge or respond to dynamic situations is not just leading blindly, but actually choosing to do so.

Like doctors, leaders need to understand that different ailments require different remedies. A comprehensive leadership toolkit requires more than a sword and shield.

This reductive line of thinking ripples out further. If our definition of leadership is too rigid and narrow, there are natural consequences for our expectation of what comprises leadership development. If we take too simplistic a view of what constitutes leadership, we consequently assume that it can be learned quickly and easily, and that one form of leadership can be taught simultaneously – and worse, satisfactorily – to different people in different situations.

Yet little could be further than the truth: leadership development is not a destination for which a ticket can be simply purchased and printed, it is a continuous journey. Both the destination and the available routes will be constantly changing, and for reasons that will not be entirely under the leader’s control or influence.

But there’s a further trap in leader-centric thinking: the belief that leadership is embodied in a single person.

Leadership is about beliefs and values as well as actions, and about what frames as well as determines the agenda.

To ignore inconvenient truths is not just too dangerously simplify our view and understanding of leadership, but of the world in which it operates.

To return to original example, for instance, views around financial conduct are shaped not just by the FCA – whoever may be occupying its loftiest chair – but by pressure groups, traditional and social media, and the shifting perspectives of all those with whom the organisation must engage, and of all those it must impress with its actions and behaviours. A volatile, complex and ambiguous world calls for leadership that understands that heroic rigidity is no longer the required response, if it ever were.



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