Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Leadership and Simplicity

Leaders (both in business and politics) often insist on a simple view of the world. They adopt patterns of thought (such as either/or thinking) that more complex thinkers regard with suspicion or even contempt. Strong foreground issues are sketched against the vaguest possible background. For their part, leaders often impatiently dismiss more complex or precise reasoning, perhaps seeing it as a symptom of resistance to action and change.

There are two possible explanations for this phenomenon. The first is that leaders actually do have a strong and simple picture of the world. This may even be one of the characteristics that qualifies a person for leadership.

The second explanation is that part of the leadership task is the construction and propagation of a sufficiently strong and simple picture of the world to carry people and organizations forward. Perhaps some leaders privately cherish more complex and nuanced pictures of the world, but they believe it to be tactically unwise to share these complexities with the public, and discourage their immediate followers from discussing them. They may even practise the kind of mental self-discipline that suppresses their own doubts – thus edging us back into Explanation One.

In his last post, Aidan talks about leaders speaking only of measures and numbers. This may be part of the same phenomenon – the leaders only talk about what they are confident their followers and public can both understand and enact. Meanwhile, leadership is often only granted to those who are trusted to operate in predictable (low-level?) ways.

Fortunate indeed are the leaders whose followers and public can understand and enact more challenging material, such as purposes and values. Of course some wise and brave leaders may have a private intention to raise the level at which their followers and public can understand and act.

However, there are obvious difficulties to communicating such intentions in advance, except in the vaguest terms. A trusted leader may be given some licence to take an organization into unknown territory, but what if the trust is used up before the objectives are reached?

If we want to appreciate leadership, then, we need to pay attention not just to what leaders say, but also to what they do – inferring as much as possible from the behaviour of the systems these leaders inhabit.

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