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Down with Leadership

There is nothing wrong with leadership in and of itself. It is a critical part of ensuring that organisations have clarity of purpose and direction. The problem is that leadership has become associated with visioning, strategising and creating clarity where there is ambiguity. What has been left behind, by comparison, is the art of being a great boss, which has been relegated to the sidelines in terms of importance.

Leadership appeals to one's ego and creates a subtle connection with those at the very top of the organisation. The status generally associated with being a leader can create a heady cocktail of emotion, ambition and significance where the focus of attention is on the leader, their values, beliefs and behaviour. But what about the followers? In a leader centric organisation the experience of many is that fitting in means accepting the values of the organisation and your leader. Where there is alignment between these, there isn’t a problem but this is rare. The reality is that more often there is a real tension between an employee’s expectation of the leader and the leader’s expectation of themselves. Overlay this with the organisation's demands of leaders and it is easy to see why the focus in organisations isn’t always on results.

The personality and inner purpose of the leader has become much more important in recent years. A great many training and development programmes have emerged which encourage leaders to understand their real life purpose and to harness this to create a leadership style which is deeply personal and intensely connected with their personal beliefs and aspirations. Whilst this can be a very liberating experience it can also develop leaders who are somewhat disconnected from the purpose of the organisations that pay their salaries and the expectations of the employees that make up their staff teams.

Martin works for an American Media organisation and recently experienced such a development programme. “It was a very personal experience. I am very pleased that my company felt that I was worth investing in to attend as it was quite expensive both in terms of the cost of the course and the time away from my job but the outcomes for me were much more about me and my life and I actually made a decision to leave my company – not immediately but when the time is right as this isn’t a role that fits for me. I do feel guilty about it but that’s just the way it is.”

It may well be that this was an appropriate development programme for Martin and his decision may have happened irrespective of his attendance but it is interesting to reflect on what his team, left back at work whilst he was away might have wanted him to learn to improve as their leader.

When asked this question directly Martin responded “Oh probably to communicate more, I’ve had that feedback in the past. When I am under pressure I tend to get very single minded and shut myself off. I am not sure that I have really improved on that”.

This is essentially the challenge. Leadership must be as much about the followers as it is about the leader themselves and until this balance is restored to more healthy levels we will continue to have organisations, teams and individuals who are not receiving the attention, support, direction and encouragement that would enable them to increase their effectiveness and contribution.

Organisations need to recognise the multiplier effect of having a leader who is also a good boss who can harness the talents of their teams. The plea is not so much down with leadership, as this is of course an important dimension of individual effectiveness, but up with followership as this is what generates the collective energy that realises (or releases) the potential and talent of the greatest number of people in organisations.

The whole notion of a focus on being a boss restores the balance in a helpful way as the boss skill set is about delivering largely on the needs of followers. So that they in turn can give of their best. The real truth is that this skill is entirely complementary to the important leadership skills sets but needs additional emphasis as in our view it has been overlooked.

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