Friday, September 11, 2009

The essence of leadership

I have been thinking about leadership - especially the effects of it's absence - for along while know. After exchanging a few messages with Ola Ellnestam on Twitter about it last week, I have finally decided to write down my thoughts.

Leadership is a difficult concept to define. The word is overloaded, subject to interpretation and Wikipedia alone lists over ten theories to explain it:

Types of leadership and other theories: Agentic Leadership, Coaching, Communal Leadership, Max Weber's Charismatic authority, Antonio Gramsci's theory of Cultural hegemony, Ethical leadership, Islamic leadership, Ideal leadership, Leader-Member Exchange Theory (LMX), Leadership Character Model, Leadership development, Servant leadership, Toxic Leadership, Youth leadership, Collaborative leadership, Outstanding leadership theory

Mind boggling. Surely it cannot be such a difficult concept?

What makes things more interesting is the emotional and cultural load associated with leadership. For some the word conjures up images of charismatic leaders like Patton or Winston Churchill, for others the images are of micro-managers for hell, breathing down their necks constantly.

The Finnish culture has a special antipathy towards the concept, causing people to grumble when you even mention leadership in a corporate context. For that I blame Lieutenant Lammio, the pompous, by-the-book spit and polish caricature of a career officer from the Finnish national epoch The Unknown Soldier.

I am not really interested in getting entangled in all that, rather I want to dig in to the problem that leadership solves - the reason for its existence. My interest? I believe lack of leadership is the greatest problem in the industry, and the root cause of most failures companies have. (Especially so in agile methods with their emphasis on self-organization, but I'll get to that later.)

Note that I only talk about leadership and will consciously avoid entering the "management vs. leadership" territory. Nor do I want to speculate whose primary job it is to lead in a modern organization. I merely want to point out that leadership is absolutely necessary, much neglected, and much simpler than you think. So without further ado...

The purpose of leadership is to get a bunch of people to accomplish something together.

The essence of leadership consists of three parts:

1) Organizing doers
2) Deciding objective(s), communicating to doers
3) Helping doers succeed in achieving objective

Miss one of the previous, and all the theories on motivation, fancy pep-talks by management, team building events, company parties by HR and the rest of the fluffy stuff associated with "leadership" become completely irrelevant. No amount of motivation will work on a group that has lost it's purpose of existence!

My list works at any level, by the way. Whether leading an individual, a team, department or a division. If the goal is to get something done with a bunch of individuals, all three things need to happen. The bunch must be formed, an objective chosen and - usually - the bunch need to be supported on their pursuit of the objective. Miss one of the three and likely nothing will ever get done. Simple?

Why is it, then, that so many organizations spend energy on schemes to motivate their employees while one or more of the three parts is missing? I don't know, but my bet is because they have lost the reason for their existence, and are trying to keep themselves busy earning money without no greater purpose. It is very difficult to set goals locally for a group if there is no overall strategy nor greater goals to serve.

Here is another point I want to drive home:

If a team, group or any organizational unit has lost its goal or the reason for its existence, it is not being lead. Simple as that.

Did I mention that leadership is vital for happiness and contentment? I will get to that later.