I believe that the idea that there is one best leadership style is nonsense. Leaders come in all shapes and all sizes. Churchill, Jobs and Nelson were all great leaders, but had very different leadership styles both to each other as well as to other great leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela and Pankhurst.
That said, I do believe that leaders face a common set of tasks – the job description of leadership. At a time when political leaders across are being tested in the coronavirus crucible, it is more useful to assess them in terms of their ability to carry out these tasks than it is give them style points. The same is true for any other leader, including ourselves.
The best book on leadership that I have read is On Leadership by John Gardner. Serving President Lyndon Johnson as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1960s, where he was responsible for launching Medicare, Gardner’s career also covered roles as a university professor, president of the Carnegie Corporation and a wartime intelligence officer for the US Marines. He also set up several influential public and non-profit organisations.
Simply put, Gardner held significant leadership positions and also witnessed, first-hand, how other major leaders operated. In On Leadership, Gardner identified these 11 leadership tasks:
- Envisioning goals – including the balance of short-term and long-term goals
- Affirming values – the shared norms, expectations and purposes of a particular group or organisation
- Regenerating values – revitalising and rebuilding shared beliefs and values to make them relevant to changing times
- Motivating – unlocking the inherent motivation of others by aligning individual, group and organisational goals
- Managing – including planning and priority setting, organisation and institution-building, keeping the systems functioning, agenda setting and decision making, exercising political judgement
- Achieving workable unity – working through conflicts and disagreements to find common purpose and shared goals
- Trust – the capacity to inspire trust in themselves
- Explaining – leaders teach, helping people to understand the ‘why’ of a particular decision, as well as the ‘what’ and the ‘how’
- Serving as a symbol – becoming both and exemplar and symbol, promoting unity and reflecting the group’s shared values
- Representing the group – looking beyond your own, immediate community, and crossing boundaries to represent and speak up for a wider set of interest groups
- Renewing – as the world changes quickly, leaders should facilitate the process of renewal
Some of these tasks, Gardner argued, can be delegated, but others – particularly serving as a symbol – cannot.
As a leader of your team, group or organisation, how do you rate on these critical 11 tasks? And what steps can you take to improve your leadership performance on each of the tasks, so that those you lead are able to be more and to achieve more?
© Stuart Cross 2020. All rights reserved.