A high IQ or a charismatic personality? As competing theories attempt to unveil the mystery behind the ‘effective’ leader, we learn that leadership is an attitude that can be learned through reflective practice. Prof. Hari Tsoukas from Warwick Business School explains why leadership is more than a just a list of boxes to tick.
By CoBS Editor Tanvi Rakesh from an original article appearing in CORE magazine
Despite his twenty years studying leadership and organisational behaviour, Professor Tsoukas admits there is no blueprint on being a leader. He maintains that while some are fortunate enough to be born leaders, the rest enter the challenge unprepared. ‘The exercise of leadership is a skill that can be learnt with reflective practice,’ he claims. More than techniques, it is skills and attitudes that can inculcate better leadership, both of which Professor Tsoukas believes can be learned with exercise.
Going beyond the now
In post-apartheid South Africa, despite 27 gruelling years in prison, Nelson Mandela decided to forsake his and his community’s self-interest in order to preserve the future of South Africa by recognising the need for bringing the many different South-African communities together. In this context, Prof. Tsoukas urges leaders to go beyond their narrow self-interest and consider the longer-term implications of the situation. He argues that if they can ensure this, then they can generate trust and goodwill among staff and stakeholders – the type of trust they need to exist and function as a leader.
Prof. Tsoukas stresses the importance leaders must place on going beyond the immediate, on being concerned with the long-term viability of the unit or the organisation they are leading. Returning to the example of Mandela, he left the presidential office on June 14, 1999 after having served only a single term, as he had originally promised. The viability of the new South African institutions was more important to him than his desire to hold power, and hence he chose to surrender it.
Hear the voice you don’t want to
Leaders are placed with a great weight upon their shoulders, that of decision-making. They must be able to evaluate the contribution of many participating voices. Thoughts and ideas can be drowned out amongst competing voices, and often voices can be marginalised as a result of what they are saying – which may be difficult to hear. Professor Tsoukas recounts the cautionary tale of the space shuttle Challenger in a bid to emphasise the importance of leaders hearing it all. On January 28, 1986, 17 percent of the American population watched footage of the Shuttle Challenger break apart seventy-three seconds after its launch, killing all of its crew members.
Concerns from engineers who had warned the NASA leadership against the reliability of certain equipment – which ultimately caused the accident – had been brushed off, in favour of relieving NASA off the pressure of launching, pressure which had been building over the course of the year.
“It might make things difficult or awkward”, Professor Tsoukas states, “but leaders must hear the arguments from all stakeholders rather than risk missing important pieces of information, especially considering that dominant voices have to justify themselves.” Relationship-enhancing conversations are the key to success. While a leader will be hard-pressed to know if they have the complete picture, Prof. Tsoukas presses upon the need to include all stakeholders and hold conversations that they may necessarily want to hear.
Sensing the common good
Often leaders find themselves locked into a stalemate – societal good vs. organisational good. Businesses may take decisions which can have wider implications that extend beyond their balance sheets. Professor Tsoukas highlights that faced with such a situation, leaders must place societal good above organisational good for the benefit of stakeholders present outside the organisation.
He cites the Tylenol scare of 1982 to illustrate what it means to prioritise the common good. Healthcare multinational Johnson & Johnson decided to withdraw all of the 31 million bottles of its pain-reducing drug from American shelves, following the death of seven people who had ingested Tylenol, later found to have been deliberately laced with Cyanide by a third-party. Easily prone to blame in the absence of another suspect, Johnson & Johnson avoided a potential public relations nightmare, by recalling its product, a move that cost the company US$ 100 million. While unprecedented, the move – for which the company took a big hit – might have actually saved its future. Within a year, Johnson & Johnson had regained its market share following the introduction of the first tamper-proof bottles.
Tuning in to processes
Faced with the prospect of taking life-altering decisions, leaders arrive at another hurdle: the information gap. Cognizance of events, the knowledge of the process of events and meetings which generate outcomes, as well as their quality, allow leaders to respond swiftly and fittingly to events that unfold within an organisation.
Professor Tsoukas narrates the tale of a new CEO in an American company who was tasked with the responsibility of ensuring rapid growth of the company. She was able to successfully overcome this snag by presenting her arguments, presentation, and responses in a way that showed she was familiar with the organisation and its inner workings. By demonstrating the knowledge of the organisation’s reactions, feelings, and conversations, she was able to win the resistance over to her side.
Adaptive leadership – familiarity breeds complacency
Despite the benefits that are derived from experience, leaders must learn to acknowledge the unique context of a situation. insists Professor Tsoukas, “Sometimes, the manual doesn’t work; the blueprint doesn’t include every factor – that is when open-mindedness is needed to be aware that this familiar situation is actually different.”
The clean-up of the BP oil spill is perhaps testament to this. Charged with the clean-up of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, recognised as the worst oil spills in the United States, Admiral Thad Allen answered, “Yes, and no” when asked if he had a template to deal with the situation. With several clean-up operations tucked under his belt, he could draw on his past experience to deal with this challenge. However, this particular oil spill was unprecedented and beyond the grasp of even the workers from BP and government agencies. The government’s go-to fixer soon realised that to make sense of the situation he had to go beyond the traditional roadmap, beyond the law, and appreciate the situation’s uniqueness to be able to resolve it.
Less theory, more practice
Prof. Tsoukas believes that wisdom comes from practicing and adopting a reflective attitude. The attitude of wisdom makes a leader sensitive to context, to competing voices and values, to stakeholders’ perspectives and to the process of bringing about change, all in order to achieve a common superior good.
With climate change affecting bottom lines, with business decisions under greater scrutiny, with a sharper eye on managerial conduct, and with consumers making conscious decisions about the recipients of their hard-earned money, leaders could definitely benefit from practicing wiser leadership in this complex and uncertain world. After all, one needn’t be born with it, one need only practise it.
- View Prof. Hari Tsoukas’s academic profile
- Read other feature articles by Prof. Hari Tsoukas
- Download this article and others in Global Voice magazine #12
- Discover the degree portfolio at Warwick Business School.
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