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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Spotting incompetence

Eight signsFurther to my earlier post, I wanted to provide some tips on how to spot incompetence in an employee or, especially, in managers and executives. I understand that incompetence may be a subjective view. What some view as incompetence others may see as cautionary, conservative or even adequate. But here’s what others have identified as incompetent or dysfunctional behaviour or personality traits in managers and leaders.

Incompetence is not black-and-white. It comes in many shades. And incompetence doesn’t (always) mean stupid: intelligent people may get promoted above their competence level, according to the Peter Principle, discussed in my previous post. They may be inexperienced, or weak, but only initially.

To be incompetent, a manager need not have all the characteristics in any list: even one may hamper his or her ability to perform effectively. A combination may freeze the operation into total stasis or may send it off in wrong directions. Or it may limp along. It depends on the situation.

Don’t assign a trait or character to someone for simple human failings, mistakes or one-off situations. People make mistakes and even managers can learn from their mistakes. At least the best do. Only when they repeat the problem should you consider it as incompetence or sign of dysfunction.

So look through these qualities and see if they fit anyone you know, anyone you work with. It’s a bit like birdwatching. Make a checklist of these warning signs and check them off as you see them in practice.

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