Why the role of leadership isn’t what you think it is

Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

The role of leadership is not what you think. The likelihood is, the more you think of yourself as an expert in leadership – the less likely you are to be a ‘great leader’. If, when you try and picture a great leader you see Steve Jobs, Jack Ma, Nelson Mandela or Elon Musk. You are probably even further away. Let me explain.

The Rugby World cup is currently on in Japan. A feast of games that has already thrown up an unlikely result such as Japan beating Ireland. The Premier League is also in full swing and it brings an interesting contrast to what a ‘Captain’ looks like for each. I have been lucky enough to captain both a rugby team and a football team (in my younger, fitter days). And the difference is huge. In rugby, you must choose a strategy. When given a penalty, you pick from 1 of 4 potential restarts. It is the captain’s choice and the right decisions at the right time can hugely influence the result. For football, as a recent article talking about the potential for Maguire to be a future captain of Manchester United said, you just have to shout loudly.

So is Elon Musk or Steve Jobs more of a rugby or football captain? Probably neither. They are perhaps more of a Tiger Woods (let’s keep the sporting analogies going!). Tiger Woods has a caddy who helps him immensely. But he has to have his own strategy, play his own way. And he has to execute every shot. That is Elon Musk. He knows more about his products than anybody else. Steve Jobs knew exactly what he wanted to do with his products.

So a leader has to be an expert, know the strategy or shout loudly? According to a new book from HBR – a leader is simply someone who has a follower. This is perhaps a better reference for the workplace – rather than sporting analogies. I am sure there are many people that we have all worked with over the years that have been put into a position of ‘leadership’ that makes you question … why? The problem, in a larger organisation, is that people are mandated to follow. They HAVE to do what their boss says. They don’t follow willingly. They are forced. But that person is still a leader, because they have a ‘follower’.

There are so many books, publications, articles and how tos about leadership, that it is almost impossible to navigate the viewpoints with a clear understanding of what makes a great leader (and I do realise the irony of writing this within a blog about the role of leadership).

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How do you identify a leader?

Within an organisational context, how do you find the ‘next great leader’? If the ‘bosses’ are not great and their ‘followers’ only do as the boss decides – how do you identify the next best? For me, that is the opportunity for the organisation. If the company culture and initiatives can be geared up to provide everyone with an equal opportunity – then does the cream naturally rise to the top?

In the past, Kadence has worked with ICLIF – a not for profit that specializes in leadership development. Part of a piece of work that we did was a 28 market study on leadership. It was part of the context for a book written about open source leadership. Within this book it was argued that because of a 24/7 world of connectivity, true leadership can not be done in the same way as before. That at the end of the day ‘leadership is more than an art than a science’ . As such, books on ‘how to lead’ simply don’t work.

One of the key areas of the book raised the question about how to find leaders within your organisation. The suggest was ‘Throw out challenges to the entire employee base and see who comes forward to showcase their talent and energy. Those who raise their hands year after year to solve company problems or exploit revenue opportunities are your natural leaders for tomorrow.’

This is great leadership. Having an organisation that allows those with passion and desire to showcase it off. It is not about forcing Harry Maguire to shout, it is about giving a voice to those that want to. So instead of thinking about individuals that are great leaders, perhaps we should be thinking about cultures that allow innovation to thrive? That the role of leadership is not to lead, but to set up a system that allows people to work on their best ideas.