The limits of leadership

By Martin Vogel

Mandela: too exceptional to be a leadership role model?
Mandela: too exceptional to be a leadership role model?

It may seem perverse in the week that we have commemorated the impact on the world of one man, Nelson Mandela, but I feel the need to cast a sceptical look at our obsession with leadership.

We live in an age which has made a fetish of leaders. As you squeeze into a rush hour Tube train, consider that probably 50 per cent of the people packed around you consider themselves to be on some kind of leadership mission at work. The other half are most likely being harangued by their organisations to step up more forcefully to the leadership plate.

Like the self-help books that offer the promise that you can achieve whatever you dream, the idea of leadership holds out the possibility that there’s no problem in organisations that can’t be resolved by a visionary and driven individual. Yet we’re regaled routinely with stories of mediocrity, organisational failure and leadership shortcomings. Ours is a tired post-industrial culture, in which the complexity of organisations and the myopia of short-term perspectives conspire to frustrate the realisation of visionary outcomes. The veneration of Mandela is testimony to the fact that, as a leadership role model, he was exceptional.

Boards, chief execs, the media and politicians collude in the myth of the perfectible world. The narrative in response to scandals is usually “Who cocked up?” not “Was this even manageable?”. As the economics blogger, Chris Dillow, has pointed out: “The ideology of leadership is so dominant that the media and political class cannot even see that it is questionable.”

As if to prove him wrong, up pops Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA and former Downing Street advisor, with some reflections on the shortcomings of leadership:

“The claim of leadership may be dishonest. We say it is to make the world better but it is really an attempt to make us feel better. While the fulfilment of that ambition is futile as we are likely to find the desire that drove us remains unfulfilled. Whisper it quietly to the young and ambitious, but they will probably one day abandon leadership not because they are satiated but because they are defeated or exhausted.

“And when we give up the struggle how quickly the waters close over our heads. The one thing of which most leaders can be sure is that a few weeks after their leaving party their successor will be announcing plans for a root and branch strategic review with a mind to achieving transformational change in what the new leader sees by implication as an outdated and creaking institution.”

A necessary quality of leadership, says Taylor, is stoicism. And for good reason. As Chris Dillow has detailed, we seem to be approaching the limits of what management can achieve:

“Managerial ability is limited. Nick Bloom and colleagues have shown that there’s a long tail of second-rate management in the UK. Staffan Canback has described how diseconomies of scale set in quite quickly, implying that managers often cannot overcome bureaucratic limits to efficiency. Alex Coad has shown that there’s a large random element to firm growth, implying that bosses contribute less to corporate success than they claim. Paul Ormerod and Bridget Rosewall have shown that corporate collapses are unforeseeable, implying that bosses perhaps can’t prevent even huge disasters. Jeffrey Nielsen has argued that corporate hierarchies have a demotivating effect on workers. And there is no evidence that the rise of managerialism since the 1980s has contributed to better productivity growth or macroeconomic performance.”

In my work in organisations, I constantly find people who put unreasonable pressure on themselves to reach challenging objectives in impossible conditions. Organisations condition people to assume there is a rational route by which to achieve ambitious goals. But often this is simply not the case. The assumption is based on the management routines of an earlier time when the relationships of cause and effect were either clear or discoverable reasonably easily. As the academic, Daniel Snowden, has identified, people in organisations today mostly face conditions of complexity, in which there are no right answers and many unknown unknowns. I’m indebted to Valerie Iles for pointing me towards Snowden’s work and her insight that the best managers can achieve in such situations is to “muddle through elegantly”.

This is a far cry from the myth of the heroic, problem-solving manager and the rhetoric of “world class” organisations that aim to be the best. How exhausting that is, and oddly disempowering in how it sets you up for failure. Much better to be the best you can be, given the circumstances in which you find yourself.

People leading in the face of complexity will not succeed by affecting a style of certainty and swiftness of decision-making. They need habits of patience and reflectiveness; they should open up discussion and encourage dissent and diverse perspectives. It is hard to develop these dispositions inside organisations, which tend to foster conformity and conflict. That’s why coaches can be so helpful, as long as they stay grounded in their own independence and don’t collude with the inherent solutions focus of organisations. Matthew Taylor sees in coaching an antidote to the fallacies of leadership:

“Leaders need a safe place in which they can stop leading, unburden and be human.  But coaching, like analysis, should not promise, or perhaps even offer, to provide instrumental success. Coaching may make us wiser in part because it makes us  sadder (I have heard analysis described as ‘replacing hysterical neuroses with everyday melancholy’). Equally, and this possibility should perhaps be explicit from the outset, it might inspire us to find somewhere a little less exhausting to displace our insatiable desires.”

I couldn’t have described better how I see the role of a coach. It’s a cliché of coaching when we tell clients, “I’m not here to solve your issue for you.” But I’m all too aware that my clients often handle challenges I’d be ill-placed to resolve. Mostly, I try to enable people to step out of the demanding expectations placed on them and to connect with their own experience and judgment. Faced with the complexity of unknown unknowns, leaders cannot avoid the discomfort of limited influence on situations which they face pressure to control. The model of leader as action hero won’t help them. Most of all, they need to tap into their own sense of being human, cultivating empathy for themselves and their colleagues as they deal with difficult circumstances.

Image courtesy Paul Simpson.