Leadership: the good, the bad and the ugly

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This week I had a chance to reflect on leadership from several angles and I have found myself increasingly rattled. The most obvious reason I am thinking about leadership is that we just had a general election.  The same week, I attended the Inspiring Leadership annual conference in Birmingham.  And finally, this has made me reflect on what matters to me as a leader in the workplace.

When leadership is only tactical, we are all doomed

It’s the saddest reflection of our society that many people have been put off from voting because they believe that politicians are not really concerned about the good of the people. Politicians are concerned about power, tactical manoeuvring, short-term gains and winning votes from specific, high-value sections of society for their own individual needs. Our public services, education, social care, the NHS have all been cynically sacrificed as a result. These tactics also don’t seem to have done Theresa May any favours at all, despite her arrogant conviction that she would glide through easily: the snap election of 2017 is characterised by May’s tactical manoeuvring seriously backfiring on her. If that kind of behaviour happened in a school, surely the headteacher would be forced to resign, but there is a special blend of (often white), privileged, self-righteous leadership which gives license to some people to keep on ploughing ahead, regardless.

When this kind of behaviour happens in any organisation, it can tear people apart while the king pin is somehow allowed to stride forth, visibly naked in his/her emperor’s new clothes, crunching underfoot the bare bones of the very people who s/he sacrificed along the way. The tactics are dressed up as being for the good of progress within the organisation. Heads must roll for it to look like there is change.

The good: A clear strategy is good for everyone. A strategy needs to be firmly based on evidence and that evidence should be gathered from all levels within the organisation itself as well as from immediate stakeholders and beyond, into the local, national and global picture. Strategy can never be about individual personal gain and protecting the power for the top dogs.

The bad: When there is a lack of transparency on how the evidence has been gained to inform the strategy, or strategy-making happens behind closed doors, there is a direct disconnect between the top dogs and the actual people tasked with delivering the strategy.

The ugly: Top dogs who use the strategy of the organisation to forward their own tactical gains are unethical and are blurring the lines between what serves their own interests and what is good for those they serve.

 

Leadership is not about hierarchical structures

The biggest mistake we make in organisations is to think that the only leaders are those that are at the top of the pyramid in terms of pay scale and rank. In fact, I can say with great conviction that many leaders can feel at their weakest in terms of actual leadership, influence and impact when they are at the very top. They are removed from the heart of their organisation and as a result are often extremely poor decision makers, left to throw their weight about with superficial displays of strength and loud declarations.

I actively encourage all of my colleagues to consider themselves leaders, whatever their age, stage or rank. True leadership can come from any level within an organisation and should evolve from a person being first and foremost a great listener, highly attuned and focused on their own thoughts and motivations, those of others around them and on what it is that needs to be done, but also clearly able to see this within the context of the wider mission of the organisation as a whole. We don’t give enough time to leaders like this to drive us forward in an organisation.

Take the example of a flock of geese flying in their V-formation. The goose leading the way at any one time knows that they are there for as long as they have the strength and stamina, the clarity of vision and the inner compass to be breaking the headwinds in tight formation with their fowl friends. But they also know that when they need to take a moment, or when they might be losing their way, another bird in the flock will glide forward and allow that first goose to hang back. They aren’t ejected from the flock in disgrace, managed out, unfairly dismissed, put ‘on capability’ as schools like to call it. The forwards momentum continues and the one at the front needs those flanking them to be agile, attuned and be feeding information forward to help propel them all towards their destination.

I have said to colleagues, no matter how junior, “you have challenging questions to us all and you have emerging answers, you have a strong opinion and seem to know what needs to be done. Just lead and we will follow”. And yet people can deliberately hold back, perhaps wanting answers to only come from the Big Cheese.  I am confident enough of my own leadership that I am also ready to be led by my colleagues, and yet the conditioning many won’t question in themselves, doesn’t let them glide forth to the tip of the V-formation and lead us towards a warm current they know is there. Better, it seems, to sit back, grumble, criticise and say I told you so. I would like to change this dynamic wherever it occurs. I want to build something else.

The good: The Big Cheese should use real leadership skills to clear the way for good ideas, evidence-informed answers and innovative problem-solving by embracing solutions and a strategy that can come from anywhere within the organisation. Think, Google’s Hack Days, and the proud employee who thought up the ‘Like’ button.

The bad: Some organisations have a “Director of Innovation” who insists that all new ideas need to come through them to be ratified and rolled out, if deemed worthy. The further you get from the coalface, the less easy it can be to see creative ways forward. Couldn’t this be seen as an innovative, patriarchal and patronising idea? That as someone at the top, you can essentially become the battery farm owner of others’ innovation, boxing ideas up and getting them ready to be marketed so as to protect your own leadership position.

The ugly: A Big Cheese might say things like this: “I decide what you do and when you do it, and I can change my mind any time”. Being overly directive and engaging in micromanagement is the ugliest form of so-called leadership. This widely misguided version of leading by example is often what separates a leader from a bureaucratic managerialist. Thinking being a leader means wielding power over others is wrong.

From the mouth of babes and straight into their long-term consciousness

My oldest daughter said indignantly over dinner tonight, “what are we to do if those that are in power are focusing on the wrong things?” She told us a story of her frustration at being punished for descending the wrong staircase at the end of the school day. She was duly barked at, made to climb back up and circumvent the whole school to reach the correct route back to where she had been moments earlier. “I was already on the bottom step! Why are they focusing on this, while kids are bunking off school, smoking at break-times or intimidating others in the toilets? Using the wrong staircase by mistake isn’t going to ruin my life chances or threaten others’ chances of success. But those other things, that are happening right under their noses, they have no plan for”.

This isn’t leadership, this is control. Having an up staircase and a down one makes sense when it is part of a coherent plan to help students move through the school between lessons in a safe and orderly fashion. These kinds of logistics can indeed make for a calm and purposeful learning environment. But to enforce these rules at 4pm after the majority of students have already sped out of the school gates and are halfway home seems petty and demoralising. To focus on these for the purpose of control rather than giving answers to the critical issues that impact negatively on the whole school population’s sense of well-being is worth re-evaluating.

The good: Keeping the main thing the main thing is important. We all need good frameworks and collective agreement on central issues that affect us. These things can be done well so that the entire population of your organisation understands the importance of what you have put in place.

The bad: Creating a set of rules to abide by can be important, but when it replaces human generosity of spirit and basic common sense, or worse still, is dressed up to be the raison d’etre, vision and ethos of the organisation, this is bad. Think zero-tolerance environments and their track record of a good understanding of where tackling mental health issues begins and deploying no-compromise disciplinary methods ends.

The ugly:  What we do now are the examples that are set to others and the ones that others are likely to replicate. We can shout at a child on a staircase or intimidate our colleagues to show our hierarchical position of strength. And this is what our legacy will be, this will be replicated.

 

The thrusting male model of leadership

As leaders of complex organisations, it is too easy to compartmentalise separately the ideals of leadership and the actual day to day behaviours of a leader. The presenters at Inspiring Leadership gave endless quotes from books about leadership, people were tweeting and scribbling notes. All the while I had a growing sense that I am tired of the “thrusting (white) male” model of leadership that we are forced to endure. I find the Inspiring Leadership conference so uplifting and such an inspiration on the one hand, but on the other, I sat through it enraged.

White male, after white male, presenting their philosophy of what good leadership looks like. The competitive sports analogies, the direct comparison between the journey of the sportsman and that of people tasked with leading a child moving through a journey of development and discovery, just doesn’t work for me the way it is told here. The professional sportsman’s journey started to look like a big bundle of anticipation, control, discipline and brute force towards a 3-minute climax on national TV worth millions of dollars, viewers, fans and expectations. It sounded like the leadership journey was so base and primal, so rooted in domination – of the self, the body and mind, and of others – that it made me rail against it. We have all experienced it over the years in the workplace. Leaders who are excited by such descriptions of leadership but that in their own dealings with people are so lacking in self-awareness that they can’t see how poor they are as leaders and what a raw deal they are delivering for those they lead.

And tying this back to the issues that WomenEd and BAMEed are working hard to address, this thrusting male model is arrogantly and wilfully unaware of what it feels like to be anything other than a white heterosexual man. The words of wisdom on the slide that summarised the All Blacks coach’s speech at Inspiring Leadership: “No Dickheads” was born of the same thrusting male symbolism. Dickheads. The tip of a male phallus.

In amongst the debris of the day’s impressions, I picked out some hints that resonated with many but could have been developed more clearly instead of the usual predictable fare.

The good:  The concept of transparent vulnerability as a great strength that was mentioned briefly in one of the speeches, is spot on. If we spend less time pretending we can cover over our weaknesses and more time being at one with them and harnessing the strengths of others, we all win. That is leadership, and leadership starts with harnessing our own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others.  For example, Peter Hyman, headteacher of School 21, is known to interview potential new members of staff with questions that start with “I am not very good at X, how would you help with this in your role at our school?”

The good: Spiderman said, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. The thrill of this seems to motivate those that are conditioned by society to be confident of their own thrusting male-ness and be a reason why perhaps others are perceived as unworthy. We are socialised to have a fixed view of what a leader looks like. Being 10% braver as per the WomenEd campaign and unpacking unconscious bias as per the message of BAMEed, can go some way to address this.

The good: Wonder Woman said, “If the prospect of living in a world where trying to respect the basic rights of those around you and valuing each other simply because we exist are such daunting, impossible tasks that only a superhero born of royalty can address them, then what sort of world are we left with? And what sort of world do you want to live in?”

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One thought on “Leadership: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. It’s so spooky to read this today, Penny, the day after my Festival of Education talk where I saw you. I hadn’t read it when I planned the session (have been on holiday so am only just catching up with the blogs I had been saving to read on my return) but so much of what you say here resonated with what I was trying to say yesterday, eg: “I actively encourage all of my colleagues to consider themselves leaders, whatever their age, stage or rank. True leadership can come from any level within an organisation”. Also really like what you say about “transparent vulnerability” – hope that came through in my answer to your question.

    If I’d read this before I prepared the session I’d have included it in my presentation!

    Lovely to see you again yesterday. Sorry we didn’t have chance for a proper chat.

    (And I sat next to Peter Hyman at dinner last night – a real treat!)

    (And love that you quote Spiderman and Wonder Woman…)

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