Do we need leaders?

Even as I write that title, all my instincts rebel.  All my experience over the last 30 years seems to have come together to confirm the essential role of leaders.  My starting point when I work with organisations to effect business transformation is to ensure that the leaders are committed and engaged.  Without them,  little will change and nothing will be sustained.   But it’s also true that, where there are no leaders, a leader will emerge.   If you put a group of people together for any time, someone will eventually take the lead  – it seems to be “a highly social phenomenon co-created by people as they negotiate how to go on together.”  And I think most people have had some experience of a fail of leadership to know how destructive that can be.  I worked for a major national institution where the leader  had demonstrably lost interest in the organisation.  After ten years, he no longer took inspiration from the people he led and his attention turned to other, external challenges.   The organisation turned into a galaxy of mini empires, all largely at war with each other.  When this was pointed out by a brave soul, his response was that ‘conflict is creative’ and therefore to be encouraged.  It was exactly that experience that made me start thinking and learning about the role of leaders in organisations.  I started with Tom Peters and then moved on to other significant gurus.  I began to learn that leaders only lead through the permission of those that follow (Margaret Thatcher’s final exit is a perfect example of that).  I learned that the role of the leader is not to have the right answers but to ask the right questions.  I learned that the role of leaders is to create the environment where people are able to be creative, whatever their field of endeavour, and feel that their own, individual contribution matters.  And I’m still learning.

Working in business transformation, helping organisations adjust to an environment of exponential change, my major focus is to work with the leaders, including those  at different levels throughout the organisation.  My role is to be their jungle guide as they embark on what is always a challenging process.  In an excellent and insightful  piece for Harvard Business Review by Scott Anthony and Clark Gilbert, they talk about the four Ps of transformation: Purpose, People, Paradox and Persistence  but the message that comes over loud and clear  is the need for consistent leadership.

Nevertheless, styles of leadership are changing.  Our expectations of leadership are changing.  We now have the full spectrum from heroic leadership to distributed leadership and many stops in between.  The University of Hertfordshire are running a conference in June this year where they are going to be examining what they describe as ‘the cult of leadership‘.  Professor Ann Cunliffe of Leeds University will be the keynote speaker.   As ever, it will be interesting to juxtapose the academic perceptions against the experienced practice.  In CidaCo, we’ll be following the debate with interest.

Anamaria Wills