Written by Phil on January 6, 2012
The problem with the modern world is the speed of change. When one compares the speed an individual changes and the speed with which an environment can change and compare both with the speed of organisational change you can instantly identify the mismatch. So why is this obvious phenomenon such a challenge for the modern leader? Quite simply it’s because different issues and different problems require different characteristics and styles of leadership and leaders need to be more style savvy. The world now moves so fast with its new technologies that leaders who are autocrats struggle to keep up. Sometimes control needs to be exercised from on high sometimes influence comes from a lot further down the secret is exercising the right level of influence and control at the appropriate level at the appropriate time. Successful leadership is as much about the right environment as it is about the leader’s characteristics and a rapidly changing environment will challenge any leader however proficient.
Let’s just take three types of problem and assess the characteristics a leader may need to possess to be effective in delivering progress or a solution to each problem type. Keith Grint in Problems Problems Problems defines three categories of problem. The first is a Critical problem one that needs a solution now; they are problems that require a rapid solution to prevent further escalation. Here a leader needs to be both decisive and considerate in their actions; decisive to prevent the problem from running out of control instantly and yet considerate to all those involved with a view to a longer term solution. The London Riots are a fine example of a critical problem escalating. A wicked problem is more ambiguous in its boundaries or very complex where time may not be a consideration. Here a leader needs to understand and recognise the root causes of the issue and manage all those parties and agendas involved in the problem. Patience, intellect, emotional intelligence and understanding are key attributes required of a leader as they try to construct a collaborative solution. An example of a wicked problem is teenage pregnancy. Now the third type of problem is the tame problem where the issue can be quickly and easily resolved although time may not be a consideration. In an efficient organisation these are dealt with relatively simply through process and operating procedures. They are the province of management and only become significant when they are raised at too high a level where they can quickly become disruptive. A leader needs courage and confidence to enable the organisation to deal with tame problems whilst maintaining them at the correct level. Courage to trust and teach followers, confidence to delegate and empower followers. Leaders need to establish organisations that understand of each member’s responsibilities, allocated boundaries and expectations. They therefore instil an ethos of ownership and responsibility that ensures problems are resolved quickly and effectively.
Control is the conundrum that confuses many in leadership roles, who has it, when should it be relinquished or delegated and how is it perceived? A leader is generally in a pre-ordained position of control at the start of a critical problem but has to work hard to maintain that control to engineer and sustain the long term solution. With a wicked problem the work begins in earnest straight away as the potential leader wrestles with the problem in order to generate the required understanding and environment to enable them to become a permissive leader. The third tame problem requires an ethos and culture of understanding and empowerment to exist so that responsibility is easily shouldered at the appropriate level. This requires a hierarchy enabling the delegation of control and trust from the leader downwards to the appropriate level. This is where the true potential of servant leadership shines through as the leader becomes the enabler rather than the controller or owner of the issue or the enforcer of a solution.
The skill sets and attributes required of the various leaders for each of the problems are different. This is why a leader needs the right circumstances and environment to become a lauded leader. A great leader’s skill sets and personal attributes have to match the moment. The old English proverb still rings true “opportunity makes the man”
The modern world where life is fast, communication is fast and technological advantage short lived, amplifies the requirement for flexibility and creates the need for an extended range of attributes from a leader. This can be achieved either by a group of leaders or a chameleon like flexible leader who has the innate qualities to lead and influence for an extended period of time. The current business environment is not the time for autocracy, and it is not the time for ponderous committees- the modern leader must be equipped with a toolbox of varied attributes that are suited to different environs and situations, but like anything in life it is the ability to recognise and understand the issue and produce the right tool to influence and lead at the right time that will make a leader stand out. Leaders need to comprehend the challenge that the modern pace of life imposes on their own leadership longevity and hence their utility as leaders. Leaders need to comprehend every situation in terms of scale and risk and they need to constantly be aware of both in order to apply the right style or model to the situation. Historically continuity and stability has helped leaders to prosper and yet modern life is about change. The one continuum in modern life is change itself – it is just quicker than it has ever been!
A leader enables followers to follow and but followers make leaders. Both Churchill and Hitler were adored by their followers and loathed by each other’s followers. There is no single set of attributes which make one individual a greater leader than another, just great leadership opportunities to match a leader’s characteristics to a particular situation or environment. Both Hitler and Churchill served a tough apprenticeship of failure until the right opportunities arose. Both were extremely successful for just a relatively short period of time. How many leaders are truly successful for an extended period of time? What apprenticeship did they serve and how did they lead? Questions that are worthy of pondering as the answers are key to the argument that leaders in today’s world need to be far more flexible and adaptable than their predecessors. They cannot just be selected they have to be developed so that they have the full range of qualities and attributes to meet their particular environment. Leadership is as much about learning as it is about knowing and a leader has to be flexible to provide the appropriate response.