Leadership: Why Think Small?

The size of the literature on leadership is inversely proportional to its ability to shine a universal light on upon its definition or definition of its characteristics. Despite interest in the subject and recognition of its importance since at least Machiavelli, contemporary organizations continue to breed alienation like stagnant ponds breed algae. The purpose of this article is therefore, less to express my personal conception of leadership, as an end in itself, but rather to identify some of the universal characteristics that define leadership at the highest levels.

Leader vs follower. Source: StockPhotos

Leader vs follower. Source: StockPhotos

by Andrew Taylor, Adhoc-Andy.blogspot.ro

Leadership is all about context. Self-evident, but often ignored is that something that works in one context will not work in another. Hence the need for a sense of purpose that unites and a flexibility of method that enables people to stamp their individuality on work and express themselves. As such leadership is less about control and much more about enabling, coordinating, but most importantly providing a context, an example and encouragement to think more.

For leadership to be distinctive it starts with thinking differently. Most thinking is descriptive and aims to be nothing more than accurate. Sometimes we think analytically – joining up ideas and events; spotting trends and exploring connections. Rarely does critical thinking take place – where we position an event, action or behaviour in a socio-economic context and give it philosophical meaning. Sometimes called developing a vision. Thus leadership is about using knowledge and critical thinking as filters through which to view today and imagine tomorrow. The next time that someone tells you that they don’t have time to read or to think, remind them that what they are really saying is that they don’t have what it takes to lead.

Once you have a vision, what differentiates leaders is their ability to communicate and enthuse others to support your vision. However, if you but want others to actively drive your vision, you will need to give it structure and context.

Leadership, by its very nature is about the relationship between values and behaviour. It rests upon one or more persons’ belief in another person, or more specifically other person’s idea(s) and capabilities. Belief is not something wholly rational or quantifiable, but is, in large part, emotional and qualitative.

True leaders realize that their authority and success is rooted in an ability to harness others intrinsic motivation. Nothing surprising in saying that leadership is not about money. However, what is less often understood is the extent to which leadership is about ethics; more specifically ethics of virtue. In ethics there are two principal schools of thought – utilitarianism and virtue. The former attributes value to actions and resources according how useful they are. Whilst the latter attributes value according to how virtuous an action is. Guess which is more intrinsically motivating? The debate, says J. Abrams, “need not be about growth versus no growth: it better serves us to think about the quality of growth” (Abrams J., 2005, The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business For People, Community and Place, White River Junction, Vermont, USA, Chelsea Green).

Debates about the nature of ethics go back at least as far as Aristotle. However, in a world where cynical duplicity defines politics and fear rules economics, leadership rooted in a clear vision of a meaningful better tomorrow couldn’t be more critical. My experience and research indicates that such leadership is far more powerful when it is about a holistic presentation of the good life, rather than say building a new product line. In other words, just going beyond our ability to affect behaviour is insufficient. True leadership comes from first presenting a vision of the good life and second enabling your business or organization to become an effective means for delivering that end, in a manner which empowers others to participate. Why think small???

Bluntly put “People who do exceptional work may be glad to be paid and even gladder to be well paid, but they do not work to collect a pay packet. They work because they love what they do” (A. Taylor and W. Krouwel, 2013, Taking Care of Business: Innovation, Ethics & Sustainability, Cluj-Napoca, RoPrint.)

As my first year philosophy Professor explained though translating a vision of a good life into reality is not straightforward and requires actions. Having challenged existing assumptions it is important to have a set of values or testimonies that link up vision and actions to provide consistency and direction. I am not talking about thus usual guff that appears on the walls in the reception of every multinational; which sounds great, but means nothing. It must be something that we can hold each to account upon and must motivate. The Christian Church has the Ten Commandments, for example… Leadership is about remaining true to our values in our pursuit of the vision.

As such leadership should be about coaching and mentoring others in how to think, not what to think. Sadly these activities are increasingly being reduced to either tactics or behavioural issues, to be handled by paid outsiders, or something that employees seek to resolve outside of work, with so-called life coaches. This is all rather sad, when one considers that the HR profession was born out of new models of business, as reactions to the brutalism of the industrial revolution, that defined business as a means to building a better world. Such models explicitly constructed business as means to develop people, communities and civic values. 150 years later, look at what progress we have made!

The focus upon development does not mean that we can ignore performance and provide a space for free-riders. On the contrary, the XIXth century enlightened industrialists gave much in the expectation of far more in terms of effort and commitment. The combination of enlightened paternalism and high standards served both customers and society well. Today we might think of such relationships less in terms of paternalism and more in terms using coaching and mentoring to recognize our common humanity and realize our combined potential. However, the demanding standards remain. If you think back to school, you remember those teachers that were inspiring, but made you work hard, far more than those who gave you an easy ride. True leadership is not about being kind for its own sake. Whilst that is worthwhile, it won’t change much and leadership is about bringing about change.

In summary Leadership is about providing the context in which others can flourish in their search for the good life, using core values to set high standards, supporting them to stretch and sharing in success. Personally I would argue that leadership is best defined in terms of an identity of place and ought to be rooted in an ethic of ecology that de-centers humans in our ethical relationship with the rest of nature. However, these are controversial points, to be discussed in future articles.

About the author

andrew taylor 2016

Dr. Andrew Taylor

Dr. Andrew Taylor, headhunter, management consultant, learning facilitator and business school lecturer (University of Hull), has a Ph.D. in property rights and environmental conflict from the University of Cardiff, Wales. Andrew has worked across the world for a wide range of multinational clients such as Coca-Cola, Holcim, AIG, PwC, GSK, Deloitte, Orange, Volksbank, ING, Vodafone, IKEA, Avon, Ipsos, Microsoft and many more. He is the founder of Connect CEE (consulting) and Endike Associates (executive search).

He has also written widely for current affairs magazines, academic journals and recently published his first book, as the main author: Taking Care Of Business: Innovation, Ethics & Sustainability (Cluj-Napoca, Romania, RoPrint 2013).

He lectures HRM on the Hull University global eMBA, at locations around the world, and successfully project managed the launch of an eMBA, as a cooperation between Hull University and UBB Cluj, including the recruitment of 28 students for the programme.

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