Extraordinary performances from ordinary people

Guest blogger:

Professor Brian SmithProfessor Brian Smith, Visiting Research Fellow at The Open University Business School, Adjunct Professor at SDA Bocconi in Milan.

What constitutes a great leader? The Venturer speaks to two leading business researchers and finds out

There are only a few topics on which more words have been written than leadership. Despite this, it is still hard to get a clear answer on what a leader actually is and does. Too often, authors confuse leadership with management, leaving both managers and leaders confused.

According to Keith Ward, a Professor of Strategic Finance at Cranfield University and Dr Brian Smith, founder of Pragmedic, a business planning support consultancy in Welwyn, leaders are happiest doing only one part of their role. Each leader has a style that focuses on that part and delegates the rest. Although no two leaders are alike, leadership styles can be split into four stereotypes: inspiring, enabling, directing and incentivising.

“These styles are good in very different ways,” says Smith. “Inspiring leadership tends to create new energy. Incentivising leadership is more about refocusing the existing energy of the firm, while enabling leadership releases energy that had previously been constrained by culture and structure.”

Looking at what leaders do reveals that there is more than one way to lead, but that all leaders focus on one part of the leadership task and not on the whole, superhuman job.

Which direction?

Great leadership occurs when the leadership group collectively addresses the four core activities, and this can happen in any order; there is no one best way to lead. The challenge lies in working out what the contingency factors are that should influence how firms should be led.

“Just as the effectiveness of organisations depends on how well they align to their market, the effectiveness of any given approach to leadership depends on how well it suits its context,” explains Ward. “In reality, three contexts overlap to  influence the effectiveness of a leadership style: the leader’s skills, the follower’s needs and the business context,” he adds. In short, when a leader’s skills overlap with the needs of the business, they provide good strategic leadership. For instance, inspiring leaders work well in turbulent situations where the way ahead is not clear. “Similarly, incentivisers tend to be more effective in more stable situations where implementation rather than strategy is needed,” says Smith.

The followers

In the same way that a company must align to its customers, leadership style must align to the needs of the people they expect to follow them. In other words, business leaders don’t just lead businesses, they must lead people.

When a leader’s skills overlap with the needs of the people, they provide good people leadership. For instance, inspiring, visionary leaders work well when the whole organisation needs to buy in to a change programme. When only a few key people need to be carried along, directing leaders work best. Enabling and incentivising seem only to work when buy-in is less of an issue.

“The mass of leadership philosophies confuses as often as it informs, but beneath the hype and opinion there lies some basic truths,” adds Smith. Leadership is about alignment. Leadership requires either a superhuman or, more likely, a complementary team. And there’s no one best way to lead, only a way which best suits the business, the leader and the led. “Leaders, aspiring or actual, would be wise to learn these lessons,” he concludes.


This article is based on Keith Ward’s new book, Extraordinary Performance from Ordinary People, Elsevier 2006. Email Brian Smith at brian.smith@pragmedic.com with your comments

One thought on “Extraordinary performances from ordinary people

  1. Brian, I enjoyed this, I agree that leaders tend to prefer a particular approach and I can recognise the different leadership styles. I wonder however if there is a different dynamic depending on the size of the organisation?

    For instance, in a large organisation I would suggest that it might be self-indulgent to focus on a single style as quite often the different styles are concurrently required for different parts of the organisation. Often the leader needs to inspire change amongst his immediate senior team whilst adopting an incentivising approach for those who are on the sharp end of the changes. My experience in large organisations is that this requirement for different styles is constant therefore perhaps we ought to be encouraging our aspiring leaders to recognise their own preference and to ensure they work on the other areas.

    Whereas, I would have thought in a small organisation a single style at a point in time may be more acceptable, eg increasing production to meet a big order may solely require incentivisation.


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