One for all

Leadership must be seen as a collective endeavour; an ongoing process dispersed throughout the organisation, says Tim Morris.
One for all
By Tim Morris
Mon 02 Mar 2009 04:00 AM

Traditionally leadership has been considered to be an individual endeavour. We are often seduced by the Jack Welch syndrome - the image of the leader as an inspirational, larger-than-life personality.

In this view of leadership, leaders are born, not made. We think of the successful leader as someone who has vision and who inspires.

Rather than considering successful leadership to be dependent upon a charismatic figure who sits at the top of a hierarchy, it is perhaps more useful to think about leadership as a collective endeavour and an ongoing process that is dispersed throughout an organisation.

Good leadership is not about direction from the top, it is about creating the conditions for people and organisations to thrive and enabling individuals and teams to operate effectively, with a strong sense of collective responsibility.

For good leadership to happen, certain key dimensions must be in place. A leader with excellent interpersonal skills may be less strong on operational details; conversely, a leader with highly sophisticated strategic skills may be less able in the inter-personal domain. No one person can be a complete leader.

The wise leader appreciates what he or she can contribute and what it is that they cannot. On the basis of this understanding, they will put in place the people with complementary skills and components that, together, create a leadership team.

If we begin to view leadership as something that occurs throughout an organisation, which works outwards across informal networks as well as downwards, along formal reporting lines, we find that the less glamorous, less visible, components of leadership become more important. Leadership is about sustaining momentum, carrying people along, negotiating and managing resources, and making the right decisions. It is about getting things done by delegating responsibilities.

Moving away from paternalistic forms of leadership can be empowering. Rather than fostering obedient executors of commands meted down from on high, we are seeing the emergence of environments that favour a more entrepreneurial leadership mindset and style.

Organisations which can tolerate ambiguity and which have in-built flexibility can nurture and support a dispersed set of decision-making, risk-taking individuals who are prepared to go out on a limb. These entrepreneurial leaders are allowed to innovate and negotiate in order to make things happen and achieve sometimes exceptional results.

So what can organisations and leaders do to help facilitate the leadership process? There is always a danger that we recruit and promote people in our own image, and in so doing replicate both our strengths and our weaknesses. For leadership to happen, the opposite should occur.

We need also to be mindful of the less glamorous aspects of leadership, taking into account in our decision-making the people, processes and planning that need to be in place if we are to move beyond the inspirational moments of leadership and sustain momentum, build relationships, lead through networks and follow through on our plans.

Leaders need to recognise that they can only play a part in a process that is bigger than themselves. Leaders also have to develop a clear understanding of their own weaknesses and the strengths of others. These first steps often require that we be both reflective and receptive, brave and humble.

Professor Tim Morris is co-director of the Oxford High Performance Leadership Programme; academic director of the Clifford Chance Centre; and professor of Management Studies at Saïd Business School.

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