What is leadership anyway?

10 October 2013

There are as many definitions of leadership as there are people defining it but none of them suggests it is a magic wand to be waved whenever there is a longstanding, complex, multifaceted problem that has withstood all sorts of previous attempts to resolve it. Yet that is how it is currently being used.

Bandied around on radio interviews as the solution to any ‘failing’ public sector institution it always seems to involve replacing existing leaders. There is indeed a ‘cult of leadership’ as Matthew Taylor mentions here in yet another terrific podcast from the RSA.

But the definition, or understanding, of leadership that I most warm to  suggests it is an outcome of the interaction between the leader, the led and the situation.

Doesn’t that sound right to you? That leadership is not something that is injected into an organisation in the person of a new leader who then uses it to shape behaviours and dynamics. Rather, those behaviours and dynamics shape the kind of leadership that emerges, they allow some kinds of influence on the part of the leader and not others. 

But how can we be arguing over a definition, surely there is research which clarifies this for us? Sadly. while we are rightly suspicious of airport bookshelves bulging with first person descriptions from leaders themselves,  research into management and leadership is not much more authoritative. An excellent list of fallacies in educational research reads across uncannily closely to research into leadership. Far too much research relies on asking serving managers what attributes they believe successful leaders do or should exhibit. Or draws conclusions from case studies of organisations the authors have declared to be successful. Some of the most well known business books have had to be rewritten after the companies they cited have fallen (more or less spectacularly) from grace.

Leadership is one of those subjects (professionalism is another) where research can illuminate but not prescribe. It is far too complex, nuanced and varied to lend itself to Randomised Controlled Trials, and although case study methods can be very helpful, they need to be used  skillfully thoughtfully and insightfully.

There are many concepts (Including leadership and professionalism) where discussion about them is much more important than trying to reach definitive (restrictive) descriptions. But these discussions are not happening, and without them the term leadership has become dangerous. It now represents a set of implicit and unsaid assumptions that are rooted in fantasy but which are nevertheless used to assess the ‘competence’ of leaders and dish out blame when systems fail. INdeed in this Post Francis era this is likely to increase as part of regulation being ‘strengthened’.

Did I really mean fantasy? Yes I did.

Once upon a time we had administrators, who, together with lead clinicians ran our local health services. Griffiths put paid to that in the mid ‘80s by saying that if ‘Florence Nightingale were  using her lamp today she would be trying to find who was in charge’.  That’s an interesting idea isn’t it? Someone in charge. Henry Mintzberg long ago distinguished between connected and disconnected hierarchies. You can be in charge of a connected hierarchy, where people do as they are told because  the people telling them know better than they do. A disconnected hierarchy of professionals who must use their judgement if the organisation is to meet its aims is different. No-one should even think of being in charge. Only of prompting everyone to work together in the interests of clients and funders, and of reconciling different interests when that proves difficult.

So we introduced managers instead of administrators, and then, when they disappointed us,  diminished the term ‘manager’  to the equivalent of the old administrators and talked of leaders instead. No doubt administrators were once influential people with clout (the District Administrator in colonial days is an example) so this is a pattern:

  • We want someone to win hearts and minds, to  persuade people (who don’t have to do as they are told) that they really do want to do what they think they don’t want to do.
  • The people in post are not doing this, so we create new roles, or rather, new titles and recruit new people
  •   When we find that the new people are merely human and cannot fulfil this magical role any better than the old ones, we let that title attach to the transactional parts of the role (scheduling, coordinating, planning, organising…) and
  •   We reach for a new title, we treat it all as though this is a new idea,  we list the attributes we want people filling those new roles to have, and the principal one is the ability to win hearts and minds of people we find difficult (we find a different vocabulary for this each time but this is what terms like ‘engagement’ mean) .        
  • And we go around the circle again.

It’s time we realised that just as all of us behave in ways that are the result of our genes, our early upbringing and our life experience, so too do organisations. Their history, geography and socio- demography shape the behaviours and dynamics within them and none of these can be instantly changed at the command of a new leader. ( Geoffrey Rivett’s book on the history of London Hospitals illustrates very well some of the factors influencing behaviours in those hospitals today).

So all too often new leaders do not introduce new behaviours within the organisation, instead they find their choices limited by the very aspects they want to change.  I suggest it is this that explains the rapid turnover of Chief Execs in troubled Trusts and we know that organisations with longstanding senior management teams often have the healthiest dynamics.

I don’t want to fall into the same correlation/causation trap as the leadership research I’ve just castigated but I do think discussions about leadership should consider seriously that responsiblity for it cannot be held solely by the leader but must be shared by staff within the organisation and those who shape its context from the outside.

Examples? Here are a couple:

The introduction of the EWTD (European Working TIme Directive) needed good leadership. It didn’t get it. Instead, those professionals who knew of the EWTD for a decade or more before it was finally introduced did almost nothing to enable it to be implemented in ways that protected teaching, team work and patient care. They simply whinged about the ways in which it was eventually imposed. I suggest they are just as guilty as any organisational leader, yet they sit back and continue to gripe at its impact rather than trying to find alternative ways that will work much better.

Similarly the 4 hour target for A and E required major improvements to systems right across most hospitals, Improvements that would be good for everyone. Unfortunately each Trust’s COOs (chief operating officer) was made personally accountable for achieving this, something that could only be achieved by changes to systems involving thousands of staff. It was all too easy for clinical staff to leave it to the COO and become angry when the consequences became apparent. But without influential local clinicians becoming involved (in something that would impact on their ability to offer the kind of care they want to offer) the result was badly designed expensive solutions offering (all too often) poorer care.

Sadly it is still possible to  hear consultants talk about senior managers as being intellectually inferior, and use that as an excuse to ignore pleas to work collaboratively on organisational problems.

That is why, it is not only nonsensical but dangerous for policy makers, regulators, press etc to hold individual leaders accountable for particular failings or successes. Every time they castigate a ‘leader’ without also finding at fault those they are trying to  lead they increase the complacent self-righteousness of those whose behaviours are a significant part of the problem. Every time they do not also consider the role of those policy makers and others who shape the context they encourage a climate of blame and judgement in place of curiosity and learning.

We need to think again (or simply think!) about leadership and I suggest it is the business of all of us.

It is of course easier to believe in magic and blame individuals when (as real humans) they fail to live up to our image of a leader. But that is the route to constant disappointment – and ever more rapid turnover in senior positions. A more appropriate set of behaviours would be to ask ourselves and each other ‘what can I’ and  ‘what can we’  ‘do to help sort this out?’ And bring the creativity and expertise of 1.4 million people to bear instead of leaving it to a few hundred.


Thanks to Julia Vaughan Smith and Richard Bolden for the note on research fallacies, and Diane Plamping for the summary of the excellent Exorthey, Peckham, Powell and Hann book on case study analysis. This blog reflects animated conversations with both Julia and DIane.

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