Rather than start this, the third blogpost in our series of articles doing a deep-dive into leaders and leadership, with an exploration of what leaders do, we’re going to start with an even more basic question: what are leaders for?
Part 1 Part 2
why this question matters.
saw in the last blogpost that trying to pursue a definitive list of
leadership attributes (‘what are leaders like?’) seems inevitably
set for failure. As an alternative route, many have argued that
focusing on what leaders do will bring us the insight we need. Yet at
CharacterScope we think that going this route quickly leads to a
glance at the leadership section of an airport bookshop shows us a
few textbooks on leadership next to multiple biographies and leaders
describing ‘what they did’ and why you should copy them. If you
read these, you’ll find that the list of what to do becomes
exhausting, long and contradictory. Leaders need to show charisma, to
pull people towards themselves; they need to show great self-belief
and yet have humility at the same time; they need to be dispassionate
yet emotionally intelligent; they need to sustain the strategic
overview yet be close to the executional detail, and so on. There are
loud, impassioned leaders and quiet, reflective leaders. Bold ones
and cautious ones. Leaders with extraordinarily attuned emotional
sensitivity, who ring with others’ emotions like a glass, and
leaders who are no more able to resonate with another person’s
emotions than is a lump of wet clay.
Stepping back, we can see that the leadership literature has been focused for decades on just a few questions: ‘what are leaders like?’ and ‘what do leaders do?’ These are important questions but only become worth answering after we have asked the ‘why’ questions: ‘why do we have leaders? what are leaders for? what happens when there is no leadership? why is leadership a universal of human experience?’ To answer these questions we need to look in a different direction, into ourselves and our psychology rather than into a book.
psychology of leaderless groups
simplest way to answer this is to reflect on your own personal
experiences of being in a group that lacks a leader or where the
person appointed as leader seems unable to lead.
experience is deeply disorienting, like we are waiting for something,
are being busy, trying to be productive, but with an underlying
unease that what we are doing is meaningless. We know that somebody
needs to take the lead and we know we need to find a shared purpose
that the group can form around.
Yet the act of taking the lead on behalf of a group, particularly a
group of strangers is stressful. Not least because it immediately
raises the question of whether anyone will follow our lead. And what
are the consequences if people do not follow? Does it mean that my
membership of the group is compromised, that I have lost my voice, my
influence? What will people think of me?
somebody else takes a lead, what do I feel? Do I feel relief that I
don’t have to take the lead? Relief mixed with resentment about
somebody else putting themselves above me? Do I have an inner
certainty that I could do better, combined with frustration with
myself that I didn’t take the lead? And when in turn someone who
has resisted my lead makes their bid for leadership, will I follow,
or will I resist? And what if no-one is allowed by the group to lead?
intimate connection between leadership and followers, and the
emotional undercurrents that swirl around leadership and followership
provide important psychological insights. We can use these insights
to get to the following key ideas.
create meaning and purpose and help people connect to it.
involves creating, or discovering, meaning and purpose and then
helping people connect productively to this purpose. Being a part of
a group without a purpose is a sure-fire way to feel frustrated and
leaders create the conditions for others to show leadership. Or more
inspire leadership from others
second theme gives us the key insight that whilst not everyone will
become a leader, leadership is for everyone, not just those who have
‘leader’ as their role. This idea, that everyone has a leadership
contribution to make, goes right to the heart of the CharacterScope
endeavour. We exist to help people and their organisations be more
characterful, places where people work productively and flourish
explore this idea further in later blogposts.
For now, take a moment to reflect on your own world. How clear are you about the purpose of the teams and groups you are a part of or lead? If everyone in the team wrote down their understanding of the team’s purpose would they write the same thing? And would it be equally meaningful and motivational for all? And how good are you and the leaders around you at inspiring leadership from your colleagues.
In this second blog post exploring leadership and the role of character development in good leadership, we take a look at what leaders are like. Or rather, we explore why asking this question is not a very good idea and whether there are better questions to give us insights into leaders and leadership. (Leadership development plan)
Leadership for many is something remote. Something other people do, and often don’t do well. It is something for older, more experienced people. Some may aspire one day to be a leader, others could imagine nothing worse. Leadership development is something that happens after management development. It is something we are invited by others to do, not something we take on to ourselves.
watch the news and rarely can see ourselves doing what we see leaders
doing: standing on stage, delivering speeches, confronting, arguing,
playing the political game. It seems not to relate to our journey to
work by tube, standing elbow to ribs. Leadership ends up seeming
remote from our daily lives and this remoteness disables.
have a powerful pull to see leaders as someone or something special.
Yet the evidence suggests that this is not the case. There has never
been a satisfactory answer to the question of what makes a leader.
Read the political and historical biographies, watch the TED videos
and tv programmes and try to summarise what leaders are like. Are
there particular personality factors? A particular pattern of
intelligence? A distinctive make up to their character?
is easy to misstep in thinking about leadership. If we do not
separate out the person and the role of ‘the leader’ we are
destined to confusion. You might hope that somebody in a leader role
would show leadership, but a moments reflection suggests that
sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Taking or showing
leadership is not the same as having the role title ‘leader’.
is a simple enough idea but one that has far-reaching implications.
For example, if we study people who have the role title of leader we
will end up listing out some behaviours and attributes that
undoubtedly are related to leadership but we will also list out
factors that do not relate. This then faces us with making the
judgement about which of these attributes actually do relate to
leadership, and how we are to make that judgement is not at all
For example, in the UK at present business leaders are far more likely to be men. They are also more likely to be taller than average, to have more prominent jaw-lines, to have come from a particular educational background. They are also more likely to be extrovert, have lower trait anxiety and be more open to experience; they are wealthier and have more affairs. Our instincts are that some of these attributes legitimately relate to leadership and some are a reflection of current biases in who gets into privileged positions. But how are we making this judgement? In a very real way, we already need to have an understanding of what leadership really is before we can start to pick out the traits that distinguish and create a leadership development plan.
have invested heavily over many years in trying to identify the
particular characteristics that pick someone out as having leadership
potential. Each large corporate will have their own formula and our
experience from consulting to hundreds of these corporates over more
than two decades is that there will be some overlap (common traits),
but each will have some distinctive parts. Many will emphasise the
need for their senior leaders to have a quick mind, or to be
extrovert, a good communicator. Some will emphasise curiosity, others
emphasise people awareness; some self-belief, others humility, and so
the picture is looked at in totality, it is hard to resist the
conclusion that all that ends up being compiled is a list of the
traits of humanity. There certainly seems to be no single thread from
which the fabric is woven. Nor even a repeated motif in the pattern
of the cloth.
insight can be an uncomfortable one: there is no definitive list of
characteristics that sets one person apart as being a leader or
having leadership potential. The definitive and distinctive list of
leadership qualities remains elusive because there isn’t one. And
if there is no definitive list, then perhaps we are all more or less
equally capable of leadership.
conclusion feels at odds with our inner certainty that there simply
must be something that sets leaders apart. To understand this, we
need to go a little deeper again and in the next blog post we will
shift from the question ‘what are leaders like?’ to some more
fruitful ones: ‘what are leaders for?’ and ‘what do leaders
And again, let’s close with some quick personal reflections: are you able to pick out the behaviours and skills you have that others will experience as leadership? Are they the same as those shown by your colleagues around you? Have you ever been in a situation where there was no leadership and leadership was needed? If so, what stopped you from taking the lead? (Leadership development plan)
It is time to think again about leadership. In this series of blog posts, we’re going to dig a little deeper into what leadership really is, whether it matters, what leaders are like and how to develop leadership.
all of our fascination with leadership, the TED talks, the
conferences, the money spent on leadership development, there has
been little gained. There are hundreds of books and tens of thousands
of papers describing what leaders are like, what they do, how to
assess their potential, how to develop them. Pay rates for senior
leaders over recent years have shifted from a multiple of 30 times
that of the lowest paid worker to 300 times: the market thinks that
leaders are either far more valuable than they used to be or are a
far scarcer resource. Yet in a recent definitive guide to academic
research and writing about leadership, Richard Nohria and his
colleague at Harvard concluded that there was little serious research
and scholarship into leadership.
businesses spend significantly on developing leaders, often choosing
to send them to the same business schools that Nohria has pointed out
don’t really believe in leadership as a proper field of study. It
is hard to avoid the conclusion that leadership is seen as a money
spinner rather than a serious subject. But given the expense,
businesses increasingly treat leadership development as the province
of the elite, an exclusive grouping, the high-potentials, those with
impact is profound. We live in a time when many institutions, from
political parties to governments to banks and corporates, believe
that a there is a deficit in leadership. We live in a society where
many people feel let-down by their leaders, doubting whether they
care about the society they are creating, a scepticism souring to
cynicism. Too many senior leaders seem primarily concerned with
themselves or their immediate circle rather than shaping a society
and wider world of equity and meaning.
starkly: there are too few good leaders.
the established leadership industry carries on with practices that
evidently are not producing positive outcomes. How can it be that
graduates from the prestigious business schools know so much about
financial structuring yet remain clueless as to why someone might be
prepared to follow them. How can it be that our prevailing way of
talking about people, society and organisations continues to rest on
market-place assumptions rather than an understanding of how people
make meaning, lead fulfilling lives, create happiness? Why is it that
for most people leadership development is reserved until they are at
a stage in their lives when they feel fully formed and their hunger
for learning is dimmed? How is it that leadership is often one of the
last things that people learn in the world of work?
It does not have to be this way. Our aim at CharacterScope is to encourage everyone to think about themselves as a leader, to find and value that part of their identity that does leadership. For some this may feel an alien notion, for others a familiar one. But we believe the world will be a better place if everyone takes the time to understand and develop their leadership.
In the next blog post we’ll go a little deeper into what leadership is really about, and how established ways of approaching this important topic all too often fail, leaving people thinking that leadership is something for other people, not for them.
let us leave you with some things to think about between now and the
next post: why would someone be prepared to follow you? And why are
you prepared to follow others? And finally: what would happen if we
didn’t have leadership?