The many faces of leadership

Guest blogger:

Professor John StoreyJohn Storey, Professor in Human Resource Management at The Open University Business School, and Chairman of the Involvement & Participation Association (IPA)

The subject of this quarter’s Business Perspective is at once important, simple, complex and controversial.

In one sense, the promise (or problem?) of leadership is fairly straightforward. Leadership is often readily regarded as the ‘answer’ to many if not most major organisational problems. Numerous major reports which identify huge challenges for public services (police, education, health, local government etc.) in the UK and other countries have come to the conclusion that ‘leadership’ is the critical factor and that ‘something needs to be done about it’.

©ThinkstockIn the private sector, the stock market value of firms which replace their chief executives (especially if with new blood from outside their firm) tend to rise considerably in response. This suggests direct monetary value riding on one individual.

Likewise, the BBC’s recent mishandling of a paedophile celebrity case was duly investigated and the resulting Pollard report attributed the ‘chaos and confusion’ to a ‘lack of leadership’. Top leaders were told to get a ‘grip’. Similarly, multiple reports into massive failings in the NHS also traced the source to a problem of leadership. Again, ‘grip’ was paraded as the missing ingredient.

In response to a lack of trophies, Roman Abramovich, tycoon owner of Chelsea football club since 2003, has sacked and appointed 10 club managers. This contrasts sharply with the situation at Manchester United.

Many other similar instances could be cited. Leadership is evidently seen by many as the solution to the most pressing of organisational problems.

Moreover, the nature and meaning of this cure-all happily also appears (at least at first sight) to be readily understandable. Gather any number of participants in a room and ask them to enumerate the key characteristics of leadership and they will without too much difficulty at all conjure up a familiar list. Leadership, they will say (and the flip chart will confirm), is about: vision, environment scanning, influence, motivation and the ability to condense complexity into some simple compelling messages. Such a list accords with most people’s idea of what makes an effective leader. The next step appears as equally obvious: how to develop such capabilities.

Thus, the importance of, the meaning of, and the constituent elements of leadership all seem to be easily identified.

However, dig a little deeper and one soon finds that there are also huge complexities and a minefield of controversies. These include debates about:

  • individual leadership (profiles of heroic and charismatic leaders) versus systemic and/or distributed and shared leadership
  • leadership versus management
  • the link between leadership and governance
  • context dependent and situational leadership versus the notion of generic leadership skills
  • levels of leadership and role-dependent leadership versus non-role-dependent leadership
  • leadership development and debates about whether leadership can be taught and/or learned and if it can be taught or learned (say through experiential learning or practice-based) then how is this best achieved?

Naturally, each of these areas of debate and controversy cannot be covered here. However, even just listing them serves to illustrate the complexity of the agenda. Some organisational cultures simply do not warm to the idea of a leadership and are suspicious of leaders and leadership; conversely, others are deeply wedded to the notion.

I want to stimulate discussion by picking out two issues which I see as important.

First, is the discussion about leaders or leadership? The former tends to be about one set of assumptions concerning individuals and their competencies. These typically include, for example, notions of clarity, integrity, authenticity, courage, etc., whereas, the idea of ‘leadership’ focuses on issues of process and relationships. If extended even further, this latter perspective embraces approaches which shift the focus away from individuals and more towards the organisation as a system. From this perspective, organisational development becomes the preferred approach rather than individual attributes. Yet, as we can readily see (and as exemplified above) there are deep-seated tendencies to cling to the notion of the criticality of the top leader.

Second, recent detailed research which I have conducted with Richard Holti into clinical leadership in healthcare service redesign (referenced below), found that leadership in this context was a process which required the application of multiple skills. There is space to only indicate the spread of these here. They include: the clarification of core purposes; achieving meaningful scope of authorisation to act; collaborating with service managers and winning resources; reworking professional roles and relationships and thus bringing clinical colleagues on board; investing time in understanding related support aspects necessary for change such as the financial and IT support systems, project management and analytical techniques.

John Storey is Professor of Human Resource Management in the Faculty of Business and Law at The Open University. He is also Chairman of the Involvement & Participation Association (IPA) and was a member of the government’s special advisory panel on Leadership and Management, which reported to ministers from the Department of Business and from the Department of Education. He has recently been commissioned by Routledge to be Editor in Chief of an international handbook on leadership.

He is author, with Richard Holti, of the recent NHS report on the role of clinical leadership in service redesign:

This same research was also reported in a recent Health Service Journal article:

See also: John Storey (editor) (2011) Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends, 2nd edition. London, Routledge. 

One thought on “The many faces of leadership

  1. It’s really good to see that the article recognises leadership is complex and is context dependent. I have recently completed a 4 year senior leadership role in the public sector and in the spirit of open learning, I penned and blogged the lessons I learnt. As a long committed member of the OU (MBA, MA, MSc(HRM) I hope some may recognise some of the theory behind the lessons, and that I was actually listening! Hope they are of some interest.
    regards Garry

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