• Richard Hill

When will we stop falling for leadership brands?

If the state of current political leadership in the UK and US (but not just there…) tells us anything, it teaches us that we have a long way to go before we have a mature understanding of leadership.

Banner leadership, which focuses on a brand identity rather than a capacity to actually lead, has taken control of how we anoint, follow and comprehend our leaders. We reward those who engage in one-dimensional dogmas, caricatures of charisma and down-the-line divisions which offer binary choices rather than true complexity.

Why do we collude in the dumbing down of leadership? Each of us knows that leadership with just one face does not work – our day-to-day experience tells us that nuance, agility, empathy, critical thought, self-reflection, trustworthiness, courage and any number of other behaviours are essential for great leadership. But we will happily concede the floor to an individual who tells us how great they are rather than demonstrates it, we will give authority to someone who has a story about bravery rather than demonstrates moral courage and we will defer judgement into the hands of someone who eschews knowledge in favour of confidence.

There are some simple answers to this which make sense, such as the narrowing of discourse to 24 hour bitesize conversations or systems which reinforce themselves and crowd out opportunities for change and adaptation, but for those of us who are interested in the act of leadership these cannot be the only answers. Externalised issues over which we have no control cannot be the only factors to blame – we need to think what we can do better.

I believe there are three reasons we empower inadequate leaders, not just in public life but in the organisations we work in and the communities we live in. These aren’t exclusive or exhaustive, but I believe illustrate part of the challenge that needs to be tackled to move towards better leadership.

We are not taught to navigate power

Although it can vary slightly depending on culture and context, it is a universal failing that we do not educate ourselves on how power is wielded and how we can access it outside of a hierarchy of authority. When the momentum of power is subverted by popular movements we express surprise that this could happen without ever recognising that all systemic power comes from the consent of those who are subject to it. Every participant in society or an organisation who lowers their voice reinforces the power that is in place.

We rarely teach ourselves, and are even more rarely taught, what power looks like and how it can be recognised. Is it any surprise then that when we see a leader who projects a one-dimensional story of power that we are taken in by it?

And equally, is it a surprise that we are not taught about power? How many of us as leaders can say that we have worked to genuinely disperse power amongst those we work with? Or does that seem too disruptive to the order of running things, too disrespectful to the hierarchy and too much of a challenge to our identities? The learning that needs to take place is on both sides –by those who are given power and those who are dispossessed from it. If we truly understood and were comfortable with conversations about power, we would find ourselves much stronger and able to act with greater impact.

We forget what leadership is for

As both leaders and followers, actions frequently take the foreground over purpose. We get caught in a discussion about what is happening and divorce it from a true dialogue about why it is happening. It may well be part of human nature to focus on the concrete reality in front of us rather than the seemingly abstract desire, goals and outcomes that we are trying to reach, but we are weaker for it. Budgets spiral out of control, political positions become untenable and strategic directions become less useful as we focus on remediating tasks rather than stepping back and trying to understand what the task is trying to accomplish and the overall benefit that we are building.

When this happens, we look to leaders to create outputs that create certainties rather than engage in a conversation about whether solutions should change along with context. If the implementation we have set upon becomes unrealistic as a solution, leaders and those who look to them become locked in dogmatic shackles in an effort to avoid inconsistency, fearing the appearance of having been wrong while forgetting that leadership is not about being right.

Leadership is here to navigate these uncertainties, to ask challenging questions and evolve the status quo – not reinforce it. The foundation question for leaders is “why?” – that is what leadership is for.

We rarely learn to lead

Most of us learn leadership through circumstance. We build up our own actions form experiences we have, stories we hear and role models we choose. This is not a bad way to learn, but it creates a ragged kind of knowledge. The fortunate among us are supported by their organisations, schools or universities to develop some leadership skill through learning and development, but even these are often inconsequentially packaged experiences which have an uncertain outcome.

The evidence that the leadership development industry has broadly failed can be seen all around us – if we had a solid grounding in what leadership is and how it happens, we would make better choices and ask harder questions of those who we empower to lead. There is exclusivity cast around learning to lead, and its separation reinforces the power dynamic that we fall prey to.

Equally, when we are taught to lead – whether through active learning, the books we read or the viral talks that do the rounds – much of it focuses on a single answer. In leadership development we fall into the trap of having an answer to catch all circumstances rather than admitting that all answers are right and all answers are wrong, depending on context. We learn tools and tactics which create the appearance of leadership rather than the critical thought and action which underpins it.

So what?

If we, as people who embrace the power and importance of leadership, work to change our empowerment of inadequate leaders then we are capable of making great change in the worlds around us.

As leaders we need to be open to understanding where power sits and can sit within the organisations around us. Residual power which could be used to heighten the impact we have is a resource that is going to waste. More likely, untapped power may well be acting in opposition to our impact as, if it is unused, it will still find some way to exert a force.

As leaders we need to start every action by asking “why?” Why am I doing this? Why are we doing this? What is this for? Why does this help create our impact? This means you can continually contextualise what is happening in the evolving world around you, enhancing the odds that you won’t be caught in the dogma trap and make certain you refresh your perspective based on the reality of those around you, not just your own.

As leaders we need to be prepared to bring others with us, even if it means empowering others to challenge us and ask difficult questions. We need to invest not just in our successors, but several generations into the future – and the leadership that they learn cannot be simply in our own image, but equipping them to build their own approach, style and confidence. Leadership learning is about understanding over knowledge, behaviours rather than competencies, so we must be prepared to create platforms, experiences and opportunities that are continual rather than framed within a development package.

All of us have a responsibility to confront the lowering of expectations that we have of our leaders and of ourselves, defeating the attitude that leadership is all about “brand” rather than ability and make certain that we are all equipped to meet the challenges of the future.

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