In my work as a coach, I have seen managers and leaders in many organisations struggle with leadership. I hear comments like “You should be empowering your teams.” “Teams should be self-organising.” “I shouldn’t intervene.” “We should actually get rid of managers altogether.” This mindset has created a vacuum. Difficult discussions are avoided and hard decisions are left undone, because they are nobody’s responsibility.
In my opinion, one key contributor to this is that leadership thinking has shifted too far between two opposing leadership metaphors; from heroic leadership towards servant leadership.
In Heroic leadership, leader is a hero that saves the day. He/she knows best what to do in any situation. He/she could perform all duties of his underlings, and do them better. When a project succeeds, the honor goes to the leader, and when a project fails he/she is to blame.
Heroic leadership traits were strong in classic hierarchical organisations, solving production problems with scientific management and Taylorism. One principal idea was to separate planning (i.e. thinking) from doing, so that leaders plan what to do and underlings only need to execute.
Heroic leader always leads from the front; when leadership is needed, he steps forward and takes the floor.
In Servant leadership, leader is there to serve his team. Team knows best what to do in any situation, the leader is there just to help them to perform their duties as well as possible. When a project succeeds, the honor goes to the team, and when a project fails the team is to blame.
Servant leadership made entrance into IT industry with agile methods. Doers were and are recognised as best experts on their area, and they should therefore be responsible for both planning (i.e. thinking) and doing. Leader’s role is to create best possible circumstances for the team to flourish.
Servant leader always leads from behind; when leadership is needed, he steps back and gives the floor to the team.
My own tendency has been to fail towards this direction. I like many of the key points in Servant leadership, but servant attitude has left me a bit powerless in situations where I have felt that someone should really do something but no-one does. I have always resorted to my coaching and facilitation skills, but I have been left wanting when they haven’t produced enough action.
To me, the game changer has been Host Leadership, a leadership metaphor brought to life by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey. In this metaphor, leader is compared to the host of a party, who is clearly responsible of certain things in the party, but the ultimate success of the party is always dependent on the quests. In this way of thinking, the success or failure of the project is always result of actions of both leader and the team.
Host leader’s first thought in any situation is should he/she take step forward or take a step back.
If things are rolling smoothly or someone else is already taking care of a specific thing needing attention, the host can take a step back. The host can just follow from the gallery how things are going, looking at the big picture. Or host can even disappear to the kitchen for a while, to prepare things out of sight. But if situation requires an active role, the host can take a step forward. He/she can either join others solving the problem, or if needed even take the spotlight with the power he/she has.
Leadership is Making a Comeback!
During past few years I’ve been seeing more and more signals that there is frustration with lack of leadership and management in different levels of many organisations. What is happening now is that people are again starting to talk about leading and being a leader without feeling shame. I think that’s an extremely positive sign. Whether through Host leadership or some other thought process, managers at all levels are recognising that they’re allowed and even required to take active role in moving difficult things forward when needed, without forgetting the inherent power and responsibility their teams have and should have.
The comeback of leadership I’m sensing doesn’t mean a return to command & control; it means taking responsibility for creating best possible environment for teams and projects to succeed. It means recognising that sometimes that responsibility means stepping to the spotlight and taking control yourself.
Comeback of leadership also doesn’t mean dropping listening, coaching, facilitation and other good collaborative practices. It just means taking few good tools back to the leader’s toolbox.
Disclaimer: I know I made a huge simplification and took short-cuts explaining all three metaphors (hero, servant and host). That’s necessary to get to the main point I’m trying to make in reasonable amount of text. I think the point is very valid and true in several organisations today, regardless of the metaphors. However, feel free to study all those metaphors more or bring up different points-of-view!