The Limit of Leadership



The Limit of Leadership

“When the effective leader is finished with his work, the people say it happened naturally.”- Lao Tzu

With leader and leadership being touted as one of the most important issues in our daily life of late. The leadership of the nation with our new President Jokowi, the leadership of the capital City with the new governor Ahok, and the praise worthy leadership of Risma in the recent AirAsia disaster as well the leadership of many other public and private organisations have all raised the all important question: what can these leaders to affect changes and how much changes and/or transformation can be expected from these leaders?

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”, says Peter Drucker. But when the line between the two blurs, managers become excellent leaders and leaders become effective managers. Be it a nation of 250 million people, a megapolitan city with some 20 million inhabitants, a multinational company of a thousand professionals, or a small firm with 20 employees; all are organizations. And leadership has a big role to play in directing an organization’s resources on the path of progress


What then doesit take to be an effective leader? What skills, strengths and personality traits one needto be able to deliver tangible result? Leadership literature is certainly not shy on suggestions – and you can guarantee that words such as “charisma”, “determination”, “commitment”, “passion” and “vision” will fill up the air. But, as Brian Morgan of the Western Hemisphere leading business school: Cardiff Business School points out, in practice things are never that simple. ‘There is no consistent, list of descriptors that will help us identify outstanding leaders’, he says. Morgan quotes the view of the business theorist Peter Drucker on entrepreneurs: ‘Some are eccentrics, others conformists; …some are worriers, some relaxed;… some drink quite heavily, some are total abstainers; … some are people of great charm and warmth… some have no more personality than a frozen mackerel’.

Drucker’s profoundly thoughtful observation reflects my own 20 years experience working and leading in various organisations. I would argue that there is indeed no context free leadership and the effectiveness of leadership is mostly situational. My view is in line with a leadership theory which says that neither a transactional leadership model, nor a transformational model of leadership will work in all situations and all the time. The philosophy of a leader should be flexible enough to adapt to situations and changing times. We need a mixture of transactional and transformational leadership techniques to get the job done. The basic idea behind this theory is that one must adapt strategy with changing conditions.

Life is smartly defined as an unending quest for knowledge, so if you think you know everything there is to it, you’ve probably come to the end of it. A leader needs to keep his eyes and ears constantly open to imbibe new thoughts and ideas, irrespective of where they’re coming from. Any opportunity to pick up new skills should never be ignored as it promotes improvement. Management and leadership are very dynamic fields. Old styles and ideologies become archaic and new ones replace them. What worked then, may not work now. Today’s business demands a different approach to management. All leaders do not have the same way of looking at things. Some prefer the carrot approach, while others prefer the stick approach. Some see freedom as a way to let creativity and independent thought blossom, while others believe that a modicum of control is necessary to achieve targets and get the work done.

An effective leader must also able and willing to understand and work within the limitations of the ennvironment within which she has to operate. This is because in the absence of an all enabling environment the process of linking performance with leadership is never an easy one.

Leaders are especially eager to make the point that they can from a clear vision and have all the skills necessary to communicate their plans throughout the organization and thus come the enviably extraordinary performance but in reality what usually happen is never quite as clear cut.   

The limited role of leader as the driver of performance can be traced, firstly, to the fact that choices often take months if not years to emerge.  Changes are more likely to start with single loop, win-win approach rather than double or triple loops evolution. Problem/opportunity/case specific incremental change that would fit the behaviour and nature of any business organization would be usually emerge triumphant. Chris Argyris (2002) defined single loop learning as the detection and correction of error. Single-loop learning occurs when errors are corrected without altering the underlying governing values. For example, a thermostat is programmed to turn on if the temperature in the room is cold, or turn off the heat if the room be-comes too hot. Double-loop learning occurs when errors are corrected by changing the governing values and then the actions. A thermostat is double-loop learning if it questions why it is programmed to measure temperature, and then adjusts the temperature itself. Note the required changes in ‘governing values’ aka President Jokowi’s Revolusi Mental needed before a fresh action may be adopted.

Thus, the second source of the potentially limiting role of leadership can be traced at the different level of urgency found in different stages of a company’s evolutionary processes. Organisation in dire strait and/or new  entities may be much more willing to adapt quick changes than the older and/or more successful ones. Indeed, once overtime consistent choices accumulate into a consensus only minimal correction can be implemented without ‘rocking the boat’.  It takes tremendous courage to build a world class organisation.

One of the most challenging aspects of leadersip therefore is in striking the right balance between making decisions as a leader and shapingthe atmosphere in an organization where a clear vision about strategies that is well communicated throughout the organization. A well communicated vision should involve commitment on how to tangiably value and care for your employees. Valuing and caring for the people within your organisation is one of the basics of a sound leadership. The people an organization are its most important assets, so it becomes very essential that a leader invests time and effort to groom them by giving them opportunities, short and long term recognition and a strong sense of belonging.  Linking leadership to performance is also about creating an organisation where ideas can be developed, adopted, and where champions and future leaders may be developed, recognised and allowed to thrive.



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