Wanted: Great business leaders

In a business climate of low returns on stock investments, recession in many industrial sectors, and a generally disastrous loss of confidence in ethical issues in the wake of scandals such as Enron and WorldCom, organisations are facing a crisis of prodigious proportions on the leadership front.

The crisis is one of morale, direction, sense of purpose and in some cases even the fundamental issue of why an organisation is in business in the first place.

It is difficult to see how organisations can solve the crisis without access to completely new types of leaders: leaders with the vision to make convincing cases for the right kind of change and the personality, energy and personal conviction to ensure these changes actually take place.

These people must be ‘big picture’ leaders who are uncompromising in their commitment to cutting through a forest of mediocrity, indecision, inertia and corruption to reach the golden prizes of real excellence, decisiveness and action.

But unfortunately, most organisations are merely scratching the surface of what needs to be done on the leadership front. At a time when real inspiration is badly needed in the leadership arena, it can be extremely useful to look at the lives and work of some of the greatest leaders of history, such as Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy, as well as more contemporary figures like Anita Roddick when searching for leadership inspiration.

Most of these historical figures did not make their careers in the world of business, though they generally had to accommodate it. Yet the challenges they faced in terms of inspiring people to act in a certain way so as to effect changes which in many cases have changed the entire world, have a great resonance of relevance for business organisations seeking to infuse their leadership initiatives with a renewed energy.

A big problem facing organisations today is that somehow in the emergence of our star-studded celebrity culture we have lost sight of the real meaning of leadership. The appeal of appearing to be in control and on top of a situation rather than actually being so can be a serious temptation.

Real leadership is not necessarily about telling people want they want to hear. It is not putting a gloss over problems while leaving them to fester underneath.

Furthermore, true leadership is very often about going against the status quo. True leaders are unlikely always to be popular with everybody all the time. They won’t do what needs to be done if all they are concerned about is their weekly popularity ratings. Leadership is the engine that drives change. It is the compass in the storm.

My research work has convinced me there are six major areas in which leaders provide the critical input that will steer an organisation through troubled waters, boosting morale and performance to unprecedented heights even during difficult trading conditions.

The first area is directional leadership. Leaders who excel here provide us with a sense of future direction. The leader acts as a visionary. He or she envisions a compelling picture of the future. We get caught up in the excitement and clarity of their dreams and are happy to help them create reality out of fantasy.

The second area is developmental leadership. Here, the leader answers the practical question: ‘How do we get there in terms of strategies and tactics?’ When Everest explorer George Mallory took the time to train his Tibetan porters in the techniques of ice climbing, he knew it would enhance his chances of achieving his vision. The leader as visionary relies on imagination, the leader as teacher relies on information. Both are necessary to create change. Therefore, you need to start disseminating critical information to followers in order to empower them. Furthermore, if you give people information they don’t feel excluded from a situation.

The third facet is relational leadership. In this capacity the leader represents the group to outsiders and negotiates on its behalf. He or she provides the collective with the solidarity and strength of a single voice and physical presence. Sincerity is essential here.

The fourth facet is ethical leadership. Here, leaders lead the way in exercising judgement on difficult issues. This aspect of leadership is commonly known as ‘principle-centred’ leadership. Today, we continue to expect our leaders will address controversial issues. But do they? How many of us can honestly say that our political leaders are proving to be inspiring forces for leadership on the ethical front?

The fifth facet, motivational leadership, involves the leader inspiring us, energising us, and lifting our spirits when things don’t go according to plan. The leader’s core competence in this dimension is inspirational appeal – the ability to create meaning and purpose. This time-honoured aspect of leadership is extremely ancient. Through interpretation of events, use of symbols and celebration of rites and rituals, the leader as spirit doctor inspires us to make the sacrifices and persist in the face of uncertainty.

The sixth aspect might be described as the leader as servant. The other facets define the leader in relation to the group. This facet defines the leader in relation to his or her self. This is the inner space of leadership – the element that makes leadership sustainable. Sustainable leadership is not a transaction. It is not a calculated bid for self-aggrandisement.

That’s why the norms of a celebrity culture are pulling us into a leadership black hole. Sustainable leadership is a personal transformation in response to a call that transcends self-interest. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu understood this when he wrote: ‘A leader is best, when people are hardly aware of his existence’.

The true leader needs to be able to give people a comprehensive answer to the question: why should I be doing this? Ideally, the leader needs to bring along a level of energy, commitment and belief that transcends mere personal conviction. There needs to be something more: commitment to a greater purpose, a wider vision. This, ultimately, is the business faith that can move mountains.

  • Dr Paul McDonald is a senior lecturer in organisational development and management at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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