Leadership: Paradoxical leaders

No one is born leader, according to Manfred Kets de Vries, most thoughtful management thinker. Some may have head start in the race to become one but leadership potential is developed. Leaders emerge from “delicate interplay between nature and nurture”, he says.
Good leaders are paradoxical characters who are “comfortable dealing with paradoxes”. The best candidates are both active and reflective, introverted and extroverted, both convergent and divergent thinkers, equipped with both IQ and EQ. They must think both atomistically and holistically for both the short and long term. Individuals who balance these contradictions have the right stuff and, therefore, the potential to become good leaders.
That is the good news. Our inventory of leaders is perilously low and, with the right development programmes, maybe we can stock up. But therein resides the rub. What kinds of programmes, delivered how and by whom, and addressing what issues?
New Zealand enterprise does not, according to both existing research and anecdotal evidence, make much effort to build learning organisations. And unfortunately tomorrow’s leaders have lot to learn, particularly about some of the “soft” skills now required to effectively do the leadership job.
This shortcoming in organisational practice is not uniquely Kiwi. Confronted by the demands, disruptions and difficulties of leading change, it’s easier to focus on processes rather than people. Some recent global research shows that this less-than-relevant approach to leading and dealing with change is still internationally commonplace.
Leaders of even the world’s largest enterprises are today struggling with some very big issues. And even the most promising and competent of them must tool up to cope with what now confronts them. As the NZIM story on page 16 of this issue reports, today’s senior executives feel they are ill equipped to deal with the context, complexity and connectedness issues of their job.
The leadership problem is not, however, solved by simply accepting that leaders are built fit for purpose rather than born to the task. It takes commensurate commitment to their construction and that, it seems, is where things also run foul.
It seems that employers aren’t particularly willing to invest sufficiently in relevant skills development programmes. Mainstream business schools aren’t considered up to the job. And professional membership organisations haven’t yet caught up with the new knowledge and skill sets their members say they need.
Leadership development is not an elitist thing. It is an across-the-organisation requirement. It’s about building capability at every level. And getting there requires the development of cultures to get the right organisational responses to deal with the urgent challenges of transformational change, of which there is much needed.
A European initiated “Developing the Global Leader of Tomorrow” study suggests that everyone from current and aspiring leaders to the human resource and other professionals who facilitate leadership learning and development, should start thinking differently about leadership. They need to know how to build and bolster their leadership ranks.
The study suggests employers ask themselves four key questions:
• What kind of people are they looking for?
• What qualities should they value?
• What are the most effective learning methods and ways of developing thinking?
• Are things broadly right in the organisation?
Whatever the approach taken, leadership development should today be strategic priority. Leaders can be found and fostered at every level of an enterprise. Leaders at the very top are, however, vital to the process. They need to see the organisational need that goes beyond themselves, not that Kets de Vries is against little narcissism in leader.
However they are developed, there is one distinguishing factor that Kets de Vries believes makes the difference between the mediocre and the great leader. That, he says, is the creation of meaning. When it comes down to it, people are searching for meaning.
The authors of the Map of Meaning, reviewed on page 22 of this issue will find that reassuring. M

Reg Birchfield is writer on leadership, governance & management. [email protected]

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