People get awfully confused about leadership. What is it? How is it different from Management? Can anybody be a Leader?
At the risk of adding to the confusion, here’s my deceptively simple definition:
“Leadership is the power to organise ideas into action.”
Leadership is not the same as Management
Let’s start by contrasting Leadership with Management. Management is the act of overseeing a process. In an organisational context, the processes managers oversee are often referred to as business processes. In manufacturing, business processes turn inputs into outputs. This concept can be extended to business processes in other sectors – there will always be some form of inputs (data, designs, resources) and business processes turn these into outputs that customers want (information, products, services).
Leadership, on the other hand, is the power to organise ideas into action; the power to change. World-renowned wellbeing guru Deepak Chopra argues the power to change derives from a combination of creativity – the seed of an idea for the future – and the desire to enact it. The desire to enact it requires organisation. Such organisation requires you pay attention to the present to make your intention a future reality. This is the essence of organisation, the essence of leadership.
Anybody can be a Leader
I believe everybody can be thought of as a leader.
The desire to enact a future intention, coupled with the capability to make it happen is all you need to be considered a leader. You do not need a job title. In an organisational context, the future intention is sometimes called a vision.
I believe there are really only three levels of hierarchy in any organisation: strategic leaders, operational (or service) leaders and individuals (who to some degree lead themselves). Everything else is ‘fluff’ to justify job titles, pay grades and HR functions.
- At the individual contribution level, you are a leader if you choose to do something that aligns to the vision, then make it happen
- At the operational/service leader level, you are a leader if you organise others to deliver the activities that deliver the vision. You probably have ‘supervisor’ or ‘manager’ in your job title, or perhaps ‘head of…’
- At the strategic leader level, you are a leader when you – collectively with others – organise the whole system to deliver the vision (the whole system comprises things like strategy, operations, people, structures, planning and performance mechanisms, engagement and team culture – see The A to Z of OD: J is for Joint Diagnosis).
Leadership development at any level is about developing the Four Cs of Leadership
The skills and experience you need at each level are different, and depend on the organisation, the nature of its activities and the scale of the activities in which you are involved.
However, the leadership behaviours are uncannily similar across organisations, industries and sectors. And they relate to the power to organise ideas into action. Four elements must be present:
- Commitment to the idea itself – the commitment to a vision
- Competence, i.e. the ability to act – the leader must be good at some aspect of the activity in which they are engaged, and must be able to organise themselves to make progress towards that vision
- Communication – the vision and the steps needed to move towards it must be articulated to influence and mobilise others. Even at the individual level, turning thoughts into actions involves saying what you are going to do (even if you only say it to yourself inside your own head)
- Change orientation – whereas management is about overseeing a defined process, which is fundamentally about stability, the leader must embrace change to make the vision a reality.
These are the Four Cs of Leadership. You can build your leadership capability by considering the extent to which each of these is fundamentally embedded and working effectively within your organisation.
OD Thought Leader: Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947)
Through conducting field experiments in social science, Lewin proposed many models and techniques that formed the bedrock of early OD practice and endure today. He created an action-oriented approach to his research into everyday social problems and drew from Gestaltism and psycho-analytics to create the new academic (perhaps ‘pracademic’? i.e. both practical and academic) field of Social Psychology.
On individual behaviour and group dynamics: Lewin’s equation
Lewin proposed that how individuals interact with each other create the world in which we’re living. In turn, the world we have created shapes individual behaviours. This proposition strikes at the heart of the nature/nurture debate, demonstrating that both nature and nurture interact to shape who we are as individuals.
He coined the term ‘group dynamics’, meaning how groups of people interact to survive and thrive in changing circumstances. He suggested that groups unify as a whole system and cannot be understood by only studying individuals. The whole is different (and greater) than the sum of its parts.
On Organisational Learning: Field Theory and Action Research
He excelled at turning everyday problems into psychological experiments, which he termed Field Theory. An early observation revealed, “intention to carry out a specific task builds a psychological tension, which is released when the intended task is completed.” This was the foundation of social psychology.
Action research (another Lewin-coined term) involves participating in resolving a social problem, whilst simultaneously conducting research into that problem and how it is solved. It is inherently reflexive. It is related to Action Learning (see the A to Z of OD: A is for Action Learning).
On Change: Force Field Analysis and the Ice Cube Theory of Change
Lewin found that people, teams and organisations tend to become frozen by a combination of driving forces that are propelling them forwards towards their goals and restraining forces that are holding them back. By analysing these forces, individuals, teams and organisations can prioritise the actions to remove restraining forces and encourage driving forces so that they unfreeze and then can move forwards towards their goal. See also The A to Z of OD: I is for the Ice Cube Theory of Change.
Recommended reading: Jay Marrow (1977), The Practical Theorist: the Life and Works of Kurt Lewin, New York, Teachers Press.
Next time: M is for Metaphor