As an educator designing and running executive education programs at Ashridge, my thinking is informed and influenced by my assumptions about human nature and about how organizations work. HR and Learning & Development Directors often ask me whether the development of their senior people is underpinned by a model, a concept, or at least some kind of ‘point-of-view’. Says Stephan Wills I have always advocated having ‘a point-of-view’ and being courageous in expressing what it is. What follows is not a model of leadership or a theory of leadership, it is my ‘point-of-view’ about leadership ‘what it is’ and ‘what it is not’ - a number of key principles which can inform and guide leadership development practice:
1. Self-realization
Creating leadership energy is an inside job; the stimulus for it comes from inside an individual. It can come from inside any individual of any type. This sits in opposition to the view that there is a universal list of character traits which determines who becomes a leader in any culture or any industry. All people can form leadership relationships providing that they first understand that its starting point is about self-realization or becoming the best you can be.
Ultimately, we are constantly stressing the importance of attaining self-confidence and self-esteem in order to achieve leadership.
2. Holistic connections
Leadership implies relationships between people. To understand what leadership is and how it occurs, it is as important to address and understand what followership is and how this phenomenon occurs in our organizations, usually through informal processes. Followers choose our leaders – leaders do not choose their followers. This kind of relationship and connection between people goes beyond the transactional (i.e. managers and their direct reports) and into the realm of the transformational.
People are connecting simultaneously on intellectual, emotional and sometimes spiritual levels for genuine leadership and followership to occur. This is not to downplay the importance of the more transactional side of our working relationships. For an organization to operate, it is vital that it functions efficiently at the more transactional level (operational efficiency). This necessitates connections and relationships between people which should not be whole. Very often this would only serve to get in the way of people getting things done.
The phenomenon we call leadership/followership is an episodic series of events intending significant change. So, let’s be clear, leadership does not reside in a person or even several persons; it resides in a dynamic and ever-changing relationship among people.
3. Collective leadership
For those who believe in the value of looking at themselves and attaining self-esteem and are then able to connect fully with others, their attention shifts to the motivations and desires of the people around them. Here lies one of the greatest myths in the various debates around the real meaning of leadership.
Leaders are too often and too quickly individualized, turned into romantic heroes, their contribution escalated beyond all others. It is not always a single individual who provides the major stimulus for collective movement and change. More often it resides somewhere in the connections and relationships, so it is often much harder to fathom and fully understand.
What is clearer is that within such unions, there is a strong desire by all the constituents to look after and nurture one another and ensure that the conditions created will allow for personal learning and growth. All members are focused on the creation of a strong collective energy and spirit, ultimately being able to call themselves a high performing team.
As well as being open and caring towards one another, all the team members are focused on being open to being influenced and being influential in the expression of their views. This kind of collective leadership is built upon an influence relationship among leaders and followers who are all working towards real changes which reflect their jointly held values and mutual purposes.
4. ‘‘Meaningful purpose’’
The overall direction of an enthusiastic, results-focused group of people, in this sense, is guided by a purpose that stems from the jointly held values which they all hold. Such values could be ‘‘set in stone’’ for a number of team members. For others, they might be more flexible and dynamic. All the team members are bonded by an overall purpose that has a deep personal meaning. A meaning which serves to connect the parts into the totality of their lives; it is not just concerned with their organizational or business life. Most often, this is what they consider to be a contribution, beyond the purely materialistic, which will enhance and enrich the lives of themselves and others.
This sits in parallel to a set of business specific targets more typically classified as a narrowly focused goal. A good example might be the concept of shareholder value. Shareholder wealth and profit are the metaphorical equivalent of the oxygen, food and water the body needs to survive and prosper. They are not the point of life, but without them, there is no life! Leadership and followership involves having a common consensus about a quest that is both meaningful and purposeful to all the constituents.
As part of this kind of unity of purpose, there is openness, care and loyalty towards one another that transcends the ebbs and flows of the commercial essentials, without denying their obvious importance. Such energy and passion is borne out of a desire by all the constituents to bring more of their ‘‘complete selves’’ into their chosen vocation. Very often this sense of a bigger contribution, beyond contributing to an organization’s products or services, involves the desire to leave behind some sort of legacy effecting humankind, however big or small.
In summary, these four key principles serve as a guiding template or frame of reference, enhancing our confidence and credibility in what is our chosen vocation: to help to nurture leadership inside our organizations through all the individuals and organizations we have the privilege to associate and work with. The principles are the cornerstone, whilst the issues and themes generated through them are always contemporary, are always in fitting with the organization need and context and are always in a constant state of flux.
Author: Stefan Wills