Leadership: The Supreme Management Skill

Sefton Davies

Jesus, Ghandi, Luther, Churchill, Hitler. all great leaders who helped change the course of history.� What did they do? Why were they able to do it when others had failed? Can leadership be learned or is it inherent?� These are important questions for any organisation, because leadership can enable organisations to achieve results beyond normal expectations. In this article, Sefton Davies analyses the nature of and qualities of organisational leadership.

While Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday at his Black Sea datcha in August 1991, a military cabal seized power and declared martial law.Tanks and troops patrolled the streets of Moscow and assemblies of people were forbidden under pain of death. Yet in front of the television cameras which beamed pictures around the globe, a man climbed onto one of the tanks and read out his defiance of the coup and his proposals for re-establishing democratic government. That evening, many thousands of Moscow citizens thronged the streets and the coup collapsed. This act of defiance by Boris Yeltsin was one of the most dramatic acts of leadership I can recall. Why?

  • Because he knew which way he wanted to go: he had a vision
  • Because he believed it was for the good of his nation to go in that direction ������
  • Because he had the courage to express his vision at risk of personal danger
  • Because he was able to express his vision so that others could understand it and believe in it
  • Because others shared his vision and were prepared to follow him, even at personal cost
  • Because the vision was capable of being translated into meaningful action

I am not saying that Boris Yeltsin's vision was necessarily the right one for Russia or that he has been successful in implementing it through effective management; only that he was able to persuade many members of his organisation (Russia) to follow him. It does, however, provide a working definition of leadership: knowing where to go and getting others to follow, even in the face of opposition.

It is important to realise that leadership has no moral dimension ― Hitler knew where to go and showed tremendous power in leading the German people to that goal, but few would now believe he was morally justified. This does not mean that he was not a good leader but rather his vision was not morally acceptable to the majority of people. Equally, leadership does not necessarily achieve its ends, since the skills needed to manage long-term success are sometimes different from the qualities of inspirational leadership; for example, Boris Yeltsin's leadership does not have the same appeal now as it did in August 1991. However, it is true that a leader will only be successful as long as his followers share the same vision, regardless of its moral validity to others, and as long as they continue to follow.� What, then, are the factors which will achieve this end?

1. The vision must be clear to the leader�

A vision is an appreciation of what total success in any venture will look like. It requires a clear understanding of what, within a prescribed period, is the ultimate goal which will give complete satisfaction to all members of the organisation. Although this is frequently presented as being something magical ― Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream ... '� ― it is, in fact, a logical projection into the future based on evidence from the past and the present. This sounds simple, but is often difficult to achieve because most of us are unable to escape from present habits and thought patterns, and are often frightened of the changes necessary to keep an organisation dynamic; we therefore tend to find it difficult to envisage the ideal goal. It is, however, possible to train oneself to do this through a process called 'visioning. You can do it yourself now by following the instructions in the exercise below. It will be most effective if you seek the help of a colleague to read out the instructions, pausing after each phrase in italics to allow you to form the image, sounds, etc.

Close your eyes and create in your mind a picture of your organisation as it is now. See it in all its detail ― the place, its contents, the people, etc. See it in colour. Move through it so that you see it in all its dimensions. Now focus on the sounds of the place ― the ambient sounds, the sounds of people. Turn up the sound so that it is really loud and all around you. Now feel the place.� Feel the physical presence ― temperature, air movement, surfaces, etc. Then your emotional feelings about the place ― your joys, your fears, your dislikes, etc. Intensify them. Finally, any smells or tastes associated with the organisation.

Open your eyes and look around you.

Close your eyes again.� Now create a picture of your ideal organisation. See it in all its detail ― the place, its contents, the people, etc. See it in colour. Move through it so that you see it in all its dimensions. Now focus on the sounds of the place and the people. Turn up the sound so that it is really loud and all around you. Now feel the place ―temperature, air, surfaces and objects. Then your emotional feelings about the place ― your joys, fears, etc. Intensify them. Finally, any smells or tastes associated with the organisation.

When you have complete both 'visions'

  • describe to your colleague what each vision was like
  • identify the main differences between the two visions and select the most important for you
  • identify the activities which will lead you from the present vision to the ideal one
  • decide whether you really want the ideal vision, or does it have undesirable consequences for you or others

Was your second, ideal, vision very different from the first? If not, you really have nowhere to lead ― be happy that you have a near perfect organisation! If there were large differences, then you have something to tell your colleagues. Did you find there were reasons why you would not accept your ideal organisation? Was it because you were frightened by it? Did it offend your values? Or would it cause inconvenience for some of your colleagues? How valid are your concerns in relation to the advantages for the organisation? Great leaders do not promise an easy passage to their vision !

The ability to see clearly the direction in which an organisation needs to go is not, however, possessed by everyone in authority although, with practice, 'visioning' becomes easier, more effective and it is possible to improve one's capacity for farsightedness. The use of 'lateral thinking'which can also be improved with practice, also enables new dimensions of creative leadership to be explored; for example,consider the possibilities which may present themselves if you were to reverse your present thinking and behaviour. However, the reality is that not everyone is equally endowed with vision or the capacity to develop it, yet many such people are in the position of appointed leader. In such cases, wisdom demands the use of the talents of others to provide the visionary aspects of leadership: to accept de facto leadership in their subordinates and to use their own authority to support and enable the vision to be achieved through effective management. This process of allowing leadership to be exercised by the most gifted person in any given situation is known as contingency leadershipThe role of contingent leader may be exercised by several members of an organisation over time, depending on changing circumstances and problems, but there is a continuing need for effective management. There is, therefore, a distinction to be made between leadership and managementand a good manager will recognise and use this distinction by encouraging leadership qualities in subordinates while coordinating the efforts of the whole organisational team.

2. The leader must be able to communicate the vision

A distinguishing quality of good leaders is their ability to inspire others with the desire to achieve their mission, and good communication is therefore an essential quality of leadership. To be effective, it needs to convey to followers:

Commitment: Followers must be convinced that the leader has a deep, even passionate, belief in the rightness of the direction in which (s)he is going, and that the benefits of following that route will be shared by everyone, not just the leader. To be a good leader means, therefore, that the vision is not some ephemeral phenomenon, but is a carefully thought through plan which will satisfy the needs of the organisation and which conforms to the values, beliefs and aspirations of its members. It means also that the leader is seen to be willing to devote his or her own energies to the task and not merely expect others to make the necessary effort. Ghandi's 'death-fasts' and imprisonments were a graphic demonstration of his belief in his cause. You might try exploring your own commitment by seeking the help of a colleague to ask you why you are acting as leader and, in response to your answer, to again ask why, and to keep on asking you to justify your response until you reach the core of your motivation.

Simplicity: Complicated, wordy and theoretical messages have little impact compared with concise, snappy statements. This is the power of catch phrases such as 'I have a dream ... ' (Martin Luther King), 'The new frontier' (John F. Kennedy) or 'New deal'(Franklin D. Roosevelt). Visions are clear and uncluttered, so the enunciation or them must be equally simple. Good leaders trim their message to the bare essentials and encapsulate it in memorable phrases.

Excitement: Followers must feel energised by the vision and motivated to work for its realisation, and this can only be done if it excites them because of its worthiness. Hitler's promise of a renewed, greater Germany, Martin Luther King's dream of a free and just America, John F. Kennedy's call for a new frontier all gave colour and excitement to their visions. While most organisational visions are not of this calibre, they must, nevertheless, imbue followers with the determination to achieve success.

3. The leader must motivate followers

After the initial excitement generated by acceptance of the leader's vision for the organisation, followers will need to be motivated to continue working for its realisation, and this is the leader's responsibility.� Motivation comes from receiving a return from effort made, in the form of job satisfaction. The wise leader will, therefore, ensure that

  • colleagues are involved in the determination of policy and are free to comment on and discuss all aspects of organisational management
  • followers receive regular feedback and appreciation of effort made
  • work is made challenging, through delegation of true responsibility and trust shown through the granting of full authority to exercise responsibility [i]
  • a conducive working environment is maintained through effective team management [ii] and good social interaction
  • problems, both professional and personal, are dealt with in a caring manner�

4.� The leadership style must instill faith in the leader

Followers will follow only as long as they have confidence in the vision and the leader's ability to achieve it.� When this confidence dissipates, allegiance will be transferred to a new leader, with probably a new vision. To maintain confidence, the leader must display personal qualities which instil trust, such as:

Courage: Great leaders have the courage which comes from belief in their vision and the willingness to sacrifice their own comfort to achieve it. This can often mean physical courage, but in the organisational sense it usually means willingness to face opposition, to be truthful, to admit mistakes, to listen to subordinates without fearing loss of authority and the willingness to take calculated risks in the interests of the organisation. Such courage can only come from clarity of vision and personal confidence arising from self-awareness and strong self-esteem, both of which are within the control of the individualThe notion of charisma, which is often used to describe leaders, is very dubious unless one can identify and learn its underlying behaviour. Although many leaders do become adopt such behaviour at a very early age, until is becomes almost intuitive, it is also possible to learn confidence at any age through techniques used in Transactional Analysis, Assertiveness Training, Neuro-Linguist Programming, [iii] , etc.��

Competence: This largely results through total belief in the rightness of the vision and its capability of achievement, but also comes from a full understanding of its implications. A leader must therefore be seen to have the knowledge and skills to manage success. Good leaders need to be good managers or, at least, to have the help of good managers who can ensure that dreams are translated into reality. Followers will look for early signs of wise decisions and effective systems for implementing them, and will soon tire of idealistic dreaming which achieves no practical benefits for them and the organisation.

Decisiveness: There is nothing more debilitating for an organisation than leaders and managers who cannot make decisions or get things done. Decision-making is not some magical process, but a systematic analysis of a problem, the possession of all relevant data concerning that problem, the awareness of the options available for solving it, the courage to decide between these options and the confidence to apply the solution rigorously while maintaining the flexibility to modify the strategy in the event of changing circumstances. One of the greatest dangers to a leader is unwillingness to act; the old Native American saying,'The quickest way to cross a lake is to cross the lake' is forgotten, and time and energy is spent on talking about how to cross the lake leading to the curse of 'paralysis by analysis'. Wise leaders will use all the intelligence and creativity of their colleagues in analysing problems and generating solutions, but will have the courage make and implement the final decision themselves.

Togetherness: Leaders need to be of the people, not remote figures, shaping their followers into effective and dedicated teams. Sharing the work, being visible, showing concern for followers' anxieties and caring for those who have problems, will all help bind the team and create trust in the leader.

Impartiality: A leader must be above the petty quarrels and conflicts which afflict most organisations; this will necessitate a level of detachment from the day-to-day minutia and instead overseeing the overall implementation of policy, although this must not be construed as a remoteness from people.

What practical lessons can be learned from this analysis of leadership qualities?

To be a good leader you will need to:

  • Clarify your vision of where your organisation needs to go in order to be ideal. Make it simple and graphic so that others will be moved by and understand it.
  • Use effective communications: If you are not a good communicator, learn to be one. Seek feedback on how you come across to others, and modify your behaviour. Learn to avoid wordiness, pedantry, nit-picking and dullness.
  • Use the leadership of others. There will be times when others may see more clearly than yourself which direction is needed to advance the vision; utilise their skills until you are back on course. Do not be afraid to acknowledge the talents of others.
  • Translate your vision into practical management. The vision will not achieve itself - it needs to be worked towards through practical planning. If you are not a particularly practical and methodical person, delegate responsibility and authority for achieving the vision to someone who shares your dream and is good at managing people and resources.
  • Model high standards. Your own behaviour as leader will establish the standards expected of your followers. You will need to be seen to be demonstrating the standards of effort, probity, courage and fairness needed to translate the vision into reality.
  • Lead - don't drive. People will gladly follow someone who knows where to go, but resent being prodded from behind. If your vision is a good one and people trust you to lead them, they will work towards it without the need for supervision. Seek their active participation in decision-making and use all the creativity of your team.
  • Motivate your followers by maintaining a challenging, participative and rewarding management environment.
  • Be prepared to take risks in pursuit of your vision. Ensure, however, that you have fully explored the consequences of your intended actions, and involve your colleagues in deciding the worthiness of your decisions.
  • Have the courage of your convictions. If your vision is worthwhile, it will justify any sacrifices that may be perhaps be required in terms of time, effort and personal comfort. There is a story of a monk who, refusing to deny his faith under pain of death, was brought before the Emperor who said, 'Do you realise who I am? I am the man who could drive a sword through you without turning a hair.' The monk looked him in the eye and said, 'And do you realise who I am? I am the man you could drive a sword through and who wouldn't turn a hair.'�������
[i] See 'Delegation: the key to effective management', Sefton Davies in ISKCON Communications Journal, Issue No. 4, July-December 1994.
[ii] See 'Teamwork is the essence of organisational effectiveness', Sefton Davies in ISKCON Communications Journal, Issue No. 3, January-June 1994.
[iii] For information on these, the reader needs to read further, e.g.: Magic Demystified, Lewis & Pucelik (for N.L.P.); T.A. Today, I. Stewart & V. Joines (for Transaction Analysis); Assertiveness at Work, K. & K. Back; The Inner Game of Management, E. Flamholtz & Y. Randle.�