Leadership is one of the most popular and widely discussed topics in the business world. It is difficult to find a management practitioner who does not have well-defined ideas and often, strong opinions on the concept. Managers, teachers, administrators, students and in fact employees across all levels can speak with authority on the subject. The likely range of views and definitions offered is so diverse that even after years of extensive study, research and reflection, experts are often at loggerheads as to what effective leadership really means. In this article we will try to investigate what effective leadership means and how we can all demonstrate effective leadership.
One effective way of trying to understand what something means is to begin by first identifying what it does not mean. Leadership cannot exist in the absence of a group of people who can be influenced. A supervisor cannot supervise if there is no one to supervise and a teacher cannot teach in the absence of students. Therefore, leadership is a null and void concept (irrespective of the definition) as long as it resides only in the mind of the leader. For the very concept to have a meaningful existence it has to be a shared construct that exists in the minds of leaders and followers. In fact, it would not be incorrect to say that leadership (as a concept), can only exist as long as it is co-created and co-owned by the ones who lead and the ones who are led. Thus, leaders would do themselves a great service by first discarding the ‘definitions’ that they carry in their heads and focus instead on creating new definitions in collaboration with the people they attempt to lead. Obviously, the more diverse the group, the more surprisingly different, and the more refreshingly original the definitions are likely to be.
Now, what does this mean? Do I need to take permission from my subordinates to do my job effectively? Perhaps not – at least not at the overt level, but it is often very difficult to get people to perform if they do not share the realities that exist in the mind of the leader. Let us look at some of the ways in which leaders can do this effectively:
- Seek to understand rather than to be understood – an old adage, perhaps clichéd, but a golden precept nevertheless. The onus of effective leadership lies more on the leader than on the followers, therefore leaders need to enhance their effectiveness by paying close attention to the values, attitudes, behavior and culture of the people being led. In culturally diverse organizations (like most organizations in the UAE) this is a particularly challenging task that requires the leader to demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence and active and empathetic listening skills.
- Discard ethnocentricity; adopt multiculturalism – nowhere in the world is this more important than in the UAE which is home to hundreds of nationalities. Multinational organizations of varied types from every part of the globe contribute to the economic and cultural fabric of this unique nation. To be an effective leader in a multicultural environment, the leader has to be very broad-minded, non-judgmental and keen to adapt and learn from every individual irrespective of his or her rank within the organization, personal beliefs or dispositions.
- Change focus – leadership in the dynamically changing contemporary business world is more likely to be effective when the leader focuses on adding value to the subordinates’ efforts, rather than on directing and controlling. This can be done effectively in a range of ways; to begin with the leader can demonstrate a willingness to contribute, nurture, guide, and above-all, forgive and forget. Nothing undermines leadership more than the leaders vindictiveness and relentless pursuit of performance-oriented goals.
To sum up, leaders can reorient themselves by realizing that the only place a leader exists as a ‘leader’ is in the minds of the followers. Therefore, the quality of leadership within any group, organization, nation, or social context is a function of the collective aspirations and desires, abilities and efforts of the people being led. Just like the quality of a leader is often reflected in the quality of the followers, the quality of the followers too is often reflected in the quality of the leadership. By this definition, leadership is a collective effort and everybody’s responsibility.
Have we been better leaders today than we were yesterday?