Revisiting Leadership (Again) by Richard David Hames

Great article by one of our most demanded Speakers –  Richard Hames

The search for a breakthrough in praxis  – Feb 5
In 2007, after ten years of intensive practical research, I published my third book. The Five Literacies of Global Leadership uncovered several breakthroughs that overturned much conventional wisdom. Yet today – a further 14 years down the track – nothing has appreciably shifted in terms of how most people think about leaders and leadership.
The art of leading, the practice of leadership, and the development of potential leaders are all interpreted in much the same way as they were over a century ago. Prevailing business school definitions of leadership remain obstinately intact – immune from alternative models.
As a consequence, mainstream assumptions concerning leaders have not changed one iota. Nor have our expectations regarding what we want leaders to deliver. Part of our obduracy has to do with the language we use to describe something that has become much more to do with managing than leading. But the other problem is the way we elevate leadership to a position of untouchability and then criticize individuals when they fail to live up to that.
We are still attracted to the idea that the leader is an exception – typically an Anglo-Saxon male of intrepid character, appointed or elected to pursue bold goals, his confidence and charm embodied in the number of followers he inspires. That has always been a fairy tale.
Recently, albeit grudgingly, we have admitted women to that elite club, urging the lucky few to behave more like men – instantly invalidating the main reason for promoting women into the top jobs. At the same time, we have diligently avoided advancing a more diverse range of leadership qualities, omitting more feminine traits in particular, lest they intrude on the myth of masculine potency and vision.
Although our technologies have evolved dramatically over the past half century, changing almost every aspect of our lives in an escalating parade of innovative enterprise, our beliefs about governance and the exercise of power are rooted in antiquated myths and obsolete models. The ‘great leader’ syndrome is one of those myths. And a dangerous one at that.
We still desperately cry out for ‘leadership’. But what do we really mean by that? And why, when we actually get closer to what we yearn for, is there such a lack of moral fortitude in pursuing what might be called ‘the public good’ – coming together in Earth-scale initiatives intended to benefit humanity as a whole rather than local fragments of self-interest?
Surely there is more to life than making money, growing the economy, spreading envy and greed, and grinding competitors into the dust? Where are the leaders, worthy of that title, who will repurpose the military to wage peace? Where are the leaders who will eliminate graft and corruption from public life? Where are the leaders who will use the resources at their disposal to unify our society rather than peddle fear of others?
Combative in principle, the old models of leading perpetuate separation and intolerance at a time when empathy, cooperation and concord are urgently needed.
When reviewing the current literature on leadership I am dismayed by the ease with which popular anecdotal evidence is uncritically accepted and used to refute almost any challenge to convention. In that context, I am obliged to return to my own work.
The idea of a leader needing to be psychologically and intellectually literate, together with positioning the work of leadership within a broader (global) context was not new of course. But it had the virtue of pointing out obvious flaws in the inherited paradigm – particularly the constraints, competitive culture, negotiated value, process myopia, and self-serving goals, that are expected and accepted in a management context, yet contrary to effective leadership. By challenging preconceptions, particularly Western-inspired notions of what constitutes effective leadership, and examining this phenomenon from outside and beyond familiar constraints, we were able to lift our thinking out of the quicksand of predictable banality.
Of course, the philosophy of a leadership praxis based on specific literacies was novel. Upon reflection, it was possibly a mistake to be so definite, or to choose just five – the latter borne out by the need to add additional, different, literacies today. I also doubt that qualifying the term leadership, by using the term global as I did, served any useful purpose. I now believe that defining African leadership, technical leadership, or even transformational leadership, as distinct varieties of the same phenomenon, unnecessarily complicates matters. Within the context of transformative change at least, leadership is simply leadership.
Returning to fundamentals in order to design from first principles, it became clear to us that the appeal for a more forceful, morally-driven leadership, is invariably a plea for change and renewal. It is not, nor indeed has it ever been, a call for small improvements or a tweaking of the status quo – which is the role and responsibility of management. Back then we chose this as a critical quality of a ‘five literacies leader’ – because most of the literature, including any assumptions used as the basis for developing leaders in corporate life, was still framed and comprehended as a management discipline.
The truth is that many so-called leaders, designated as such because of their manifest or symbolic status in a specific entity, are managers in all but name. There is no shame in the separation of managers from leaders. They are distinctive practices, and require intensely different operating modes and behaviours.
Management demands profound knowledge of a system, timely information, and a range of decision-making skills and people-centered competencies that can be learnt and applied in specific situations. Necessitating a professional and disciplined manner, both aptitude and appetite for managing are nurtured by experience and developed over time. The seeds of leadership, on the other hand, are to be found in a deep-seated craving to change things for the better – a desire to be found in the soul of almost every human being.
The aptitude and appetite to lead can be triggered in an instant, emerge fully-formed, and needs no further development per se – at least in the conventional sense. Most commonly, too, it is born from a convergence of desire and opportunity rather than any preconceived role or ordained position.
One of the most difficult issues facing humanity is that we are subjected to management on the pretext that this is leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have turned ancient Greek philosophy – where logos (literally divine reason, or life purpose), is supported by nomos, the body of laws needed to fulfil life’s purpose – on its head, so that the economy now dominates each and every thought. Politicians are constantly patching up the present in desperate attempts to avert our gaze from their incompetence. Corporate heads posture and preen with all the courage of canaries in a gilded cage. Both camps are dogged by fear. Fear of structural change (except in very small doses), fear of original thinking (apart from when their constituents give them license to stray from the straight and narrow), fear of a future over which they have no control, and the even greater fear of being found wanting.
Admittedly the impulse to lead is often represented as the desire to achieve a vision or end goal. But that is misleading. It is actually much more than that. In those who really lead it starts as a subconscious reframing of reality within the context of their relationship with others and the environment. In a sense the urge to lead is deeply coevolutionary. Only the early tasks of interior inquiry and incubation can be done in isolated solitude.
Consciously seeking an expansion of one’s own ethical code, for example, invariably leads to insights – alternate ways of seeing and thinking about reality – that are more advanced and seem to make better sense. In this way, a new intelligence of belonging and purpose starts forming. Gradually alternative possibilities begin to appear. Some fresh ideas are incubated, possibly over many months or even years. Others are cast aside. Though hidden in full view, decisions take a different shape. Ultimately uncommon actions are taken and at that point the leader becomes both visible and redundant. With others engaged, change now becomes inevitable.
Because new behaviours are the first visible signs of our intention to change they are often mistaken for the original impulse. Although this is a fundamental error, it goes some way to explain why leadership development programs are routinely structured around behavioural characteristics. But it does not excuse the fact that, by and large, behaviour is an unsuitable starting place.
While actions remain the visible tip of the ontological iceberg, what occurs in the deepest recesses of our consciousness, as a preliminary reaction to external stimuli, is a vastly more accurate guide to our intentions. Thus, true leadership development starts in undetectable liminal moments of the evolving mind. And although the impulse for change can be sparked by one, or possibly two individuals, the actual praxis of leadership is inevitably a collective, shared phenomenon. It can only result from the coherent objectives and actions of many.
The surrounding social ecosystem is therefore a significant factor, if frequently downplayed. In fact, all leadership is context specific – it arises from explicit needs within a group that are not being met by other means.
Although the conventional ‘great leader’ syndrome is one most commonly associated with theories of contingency (the ability to control a situation) or charisma (the ability to inspire and influence), the most effective leaders arise from, and merge with, their social set, often to the extent that they become indiscernible from others in the group, at least to outsiders.
This notion of social identity explains a lot about the apparent vacuum in leadership today. For example, if leaders distance themselves from society, by crafting an elite persona, or by feigning superiority in some way, they risk resorting to old-style leadership models that have been proven to be the problem.
This is why, when writing The Five Literacies of Global Leadership, we rapidly came to the conclusion that authentic leadership is an emergent phenomenon – intimately entangled with the dynamics of the social ecosystem into which it is born and then flourishes. Unlike management it cannot be planned. But its outcomes can be predicted with high levels of certainty.
Take young Greta Thunberg, for example. Alarmed by the inaction of her government on an issue of such importance, she simply instituted a solitary protest outside of her parliament. She had no legal authority to do what she did. Why, she did not even have the blessing of her parents. She had no elected platform from which to instruct or admonish. And she had no intention of creating a social movement that would eventually lead to her chastising prominent members of the elite at the World Economic Forum or the UN. Circumstances conspired to elevate her circumstances and narrative, especially in the minds of young people, to that of an icon of change. Thus a leader was revealed in all its aching unlikeliness.
Perhaps these are the reasons we still cry out for leadership, the reason we still crave more Greta Thunbergs. As long as designated leaders continue to manage, rather than to inspire, our cries will continue to echo into the void and the massive structural changes we urgently need in our world will elude us.