Monday, April 28, 2014

Can We Expect to be Led by a Perfect Leader?

Deborah Ancona, Thomas Malone, Wanda Orlikowski and Peter Senge wrote in a 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review that “it’s time to end the myth of the complete leader: the flawless person at the top who’s got it all figured out. In fact, the sooner leaders stop trying to be all things to all people, the better off their organizations will be. In today’s world, the executive’s job is no longer to command and control but to cultivate and coordinate the actions of others at all levels of the organization. Only when leaders come to see themselves as incomplete - as having both strengths and weaknesses - will they be able to make up for their missing skills by relying on others.”
This highlights one of the core traits of both good and great leaders ‘humility’ and hence any leader who aspires to be constantly good or great would never consider themselves complete - they understand that leadership is ever evolving, and that most of the time it’s all about intent - that is, how you approach leadership, and the behaviours you employ in your role. 
Deborah Ancona et al, believe that “corporations have been becoming less hierarchical and more collaborative for decades, of course, as globalization and the growing importance of knowledge work have required that responsibility and initiative be distributed more widely. Moreover, it is now possible for large groups of people to coordinate their actions, not just by bringing lots of information to a few centralized places but also by bringing lots of information to lots of places through ever-growing networks within and beyond the firm. The sheer complexity and ambiguity of problems is humbling. More and more decisions are made in the context of global markets and rapidly - sometimes radically - changing financial, social, political, technological, and environmental forces. Stakeholders such as activists, regulators, and employees all have claims on organizations.”
It’s interesting that this article was published before the global recession,  as since 2007 some may say that many organisations have in fact become more hierarchical  and though collaboration is encouraged, hierarchy has returned, sometimes to the detriment of sustainable growth, employee motivation and most of all ‘great leadership’.
But Deborah Ancona et al highlight a very important fact that “no one person could possibly stay on top of everything. But the myth of the complete leader (and the attendant fear of appearing incompetent) makes many executives try to do just that, exhausting themselves and damaging their organizations in the process. The incomplete leader, by contrast, knows when to let go: when to let those who know the local market do the advertising plan or when to let the engineering team run with its idea of what the customer needs. The incomplete leader also knows that leadership exists throughout the organizational hierarchy, wherever expertise, vision, new ideas, and commitment are found.”
The debate should probably focus around whether a leader who ‘knows when to let go’ and who can acknowledges someone in the organisation knows more about a certain business requirement than they do – is in fact, incomplete – or alternatively a well-rounded and grounded, ‘complete’ leader.     
No one would like to be called incomplete, as it implies something is missing yet, in business, it’s simply impossible for anyone to be the best at everything that’s why we have organisation structures and business processes like talent management. The challenge is to accept good and great leaders will always be ‘incomplete’ to some degree – it’s how they respond to that ‘incompleteness’ that determines how effective your leadership will really be.
Ancona, D., Malone, T.W., Orlikowski, W.J. and Senge, P.M. (2007). In Praise of the Incomplete Leader. Harvard Business Review, November.

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