Musings on leadership

Dilbert
What makes a good leader? Or a bad one, for that matter? That’s a long-standing debate that reaches back into history.* Of late I’ve been reading about and pondering the characteristics of leadership.

Some people are promoted, elected or appointed to positions of authority. This makes them leaders by definition or responsibility, but not always by capability, style or attitude. Simply being in a position of authority or having a title doesn’t necessarily mean these people have leadership qualities.

We’ve all had the experience of people who were promoted or appointed beyond their ability; people who became martinets, bullies or who lost control of the group they’re supposed to lead, either by incompetence or inability.

The Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” This can been seen in politics, too. We’ve watched many MPs, MPPs and councillors promoted to the ranks of the government, taking on important roles only to show themselves as incapable of handling the task. Not everyone is suited for the role of leader. Some people are simply best as followers, as supporters, minions, backbenchers or even as the opposition.

Leadership implies teams and followers, not just an office or title. No matter how lofty the title is, without followers a leader is just a lone person out for a walk.

leadership stylesAccording to the US Army Handbook (1973) there are three styles of leadership: Authoritarian or autocratic; Participative or democratic; Delegative or Free Reign (see the illustration on the right for a graphic description).

This may seem a mite simplistic. Other sites list more styles, often many more. For example, the site Mind Tools offers ten distinct styles:

  • Autocratic leadership.
  • Bureaucratic leadership.
  • Charismatic leadership.
  • Democratic leadership/participative leadership.
  • Laissez-faire leadership.
  • People-oriented leadership/relations-oriented leadership.
  • Servant leadership.
  • Task-oriented leadership.
  • Transactional leadership.
  • Transformational leadership.

Now while it is seldom a leader single-mindedly practices just one of these styles, and usually displays a mix of different styles that surface at different times, most leaders bend towards a particular style. Or a combination – an autocratic, bureaucratic leader, for example. There are clearly positive and negative management styles. Post-hoc and micromanagement are two examples of bad styles, for example.

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Channelling John Stuart Mill

In the opening few pages of his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill warned about the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion.” Anyone familiar with the mob mentality than can erupt on social media, its potential for divisiveness and the platform’s inherent weakness to be manipulated by outside forces (such as Russia) would consider Mill’s words as topical today. 

Mill was writing in this essay about, “…the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” and how to contain the “tyranny of the majority.”*

He was passionate about individuality and the freedom of the individual, warning against state control (thought or otherwise)  by any means for any reason other than one, and would have, I suspect, been aghast at today’s social media as a tool for manipulating public opinion (in a way the late Neil Postman would have appreciated**):

…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.

The current rise of right-wing conformity to nationalist, religious and racist ideologies masquerading as populism poses a similar threat to individual freedoms. Populist movements threaten western democracies by attacking the fundamental principles of an open, free, inclusive and democratic society and replacing them with conformity to restrictive, exclusive nationalist and racist views.

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