Why can’t we capture the meaning of leadership?

For centuries philosophers, mystics and the clergy have argued about the meaning of leadership – without a definite conclusion. Business people have devised their own tantalising question which has spawned an entire industry.

“How do we define a great leader?” seems like a simple question. But according to eminent leadership scholar James MacGregor Burns, leadership is the most studied and the least understood concept in all of the social sciences. Waxing eloquent on leadership has made many authors famous and rich. It has perplexed many students and continues to intrigue academics.

It is sometimes easy to spot incidents of great leadership, single acts which most people agree on. These are glimpses of greatness and can be seen on a kids’ soccer field, in battle, in a boardroom, during an earthquake, in a riot and among the sick and dying. A gesture by a politician at a time of crisis or a thoughtful act in a moment of calamity are celebrated on social media and the word “leadership” is bandied about energetically.

Moments of great leadership can be identified but how can the concept be defined? Enter the wordsmiths who cobble together the “essence of leadership” in a few phrases: courage, vision, humility, communication, inspiration, authenticity. Yet at the same time we could each think of a great leader who has some but not all of these virtues. Are they still great?

The challenge of course is that to define something as elusive as leadership cannot be done scientifically. For every attempt there are many examples which defy the description. Every time you imagine you’ve nailed the concept a new leader emerges who acts in a way that makes a mockery of the definition. Add to the mix the conundrum of a leader who some people consider a saint and others deem despicable, but he or she is the same person and we are observing the same actions.

Leadership as perception

And that is the core of the problem. Leadership is not a characteristic, it is a perception, an impression, an idea which changes over time, geography, context and culture. One person’s hero is another person’s criminal. A hero in ancient Greece might not be considered a great leader today – their misdeeds could land them in prison.

We also know that a paragon of leadership rarely transfers from one context to another. A great leader on the rugby field is not necessarily a good political leader because the rules of the game are fluid, the relevant audiences are not the same, the opponents’ tactics differ, and more. You might be safer in the scrum than in parliament!

In a sense leadership resides in the eye of the beholder. Maybe a great leader is nothing more than someone who meets the expectations of leadership among their followers. So, a leader in one remote village is great if he or she are hailed as a great leader by their villagers. Problem solved!

Global leaders?

Of course not. Within a connected world where a revolution can spread from one corner of the globe to another in a few seconds, the actions of any person are unlikely to remain purely local. A leader has to think beyond the village, because the village is global, it is powerful, not necessarily well informed, open to bad influences and savagely critical. Leaders are created, elevated and dashed to pieces within the space of a week. The perception of great leadership changes with the tides. Fame can germinate from a YouTube clip and can be extinguished by a baying crowd in the comments, fuelled by hype and expressed in emojis.

No wonder the books on leadership keep selling. Every leadership guru refines or expands the concept and their work is based on evidence and therefore they tell the truth. Every counter-argument is based on different evidence and is also true.

Where does this chaos leave us? Where do we find the real truth and which recipe must we to follow to become great leaders in our own context? Should we embrace one author and follow their guidance? Should we abandon the whole lot and do what comes naturally?

Prof Ted Zorn discusses these and other leadership challenges in his webinar entitled “What we keep getting wrong about leadership.” Watch it here.

Ted Zorn is a Professor of Organisational Communication and Head of Massey Executive Development. He is both a scholar and practitioner of leadership, with more than 80 publications and numerous awards for his research. And, for more than 20 years he’s held leadership roles in universities, professional associations and community organisations, including as Dean of Massey Business School and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Massey University. He has a record of creating positive changes in each of his leadership roles. His more than six years as Dean at Massey Business School saw the creation of multiple new, successful education programmes; doubling of research output (while improving quality);  and placing Massey at the top of NZ business schools in the Shanghai International Rankings for business management and finance.

From avoidance to anticipation: coping with Change in our work and lives

Most people think change is a great idea until the change affects them.

Change, viewed from a distance, is mostly seen as a positive thing. Any progress is the result of change. Any development involves changing what already exists. In nature, any growth follows change. Not even mighty mountains remain unchanged eternally. So, if change is progress and is generally seen as good, why are we so afraid of change? Why do our hearts race, and why does our anxiety soar when we are faced with unexpected change? If we know that remaining stuck in a rut is usually a bad idea, why are we afraid of movement?

The answer, according to Prof Jens Mueller, lies in what we have been conditioned to think. “It is not the change we fear but the consequences.” Assuming we are all competent, high-performing people who regularly produce outstanding work and achieve our targets, we naturally want to maintain the environment and the circumstances which have led us to excel and which highlight our outstanding performance. When things change the chances of our maintaining perfect performance are threatened, and we start dreading what we believe to be one of life’s greatest risks: failure. We are forced to contemplate a speculative, uncertain vision of the future in which the chances of failure are higher than the present.

“We are conditioned by our cultures to dread failure, to see it as an embarrassing shortcoming, something which will threaten our careers and possibly our well-being,” says Mueller. But no great innovation has come without change, and many corporate failures have stemmed from avoidance of change. The example of Kodak is often mentioned in this regard: the company that invented the first digital camera did not anticipate the popularity of the medium nor the speed at which traditional film processes would be abandoned.

Similarly, for people who are afraid of change and try to avoid it, there is usually not a pleasant outcome because the world is defined by change. Corporate survival depends on change (called innovation); individual survival depends on growth; social progress follows upheavals; learning is itself a changing of existing knowledge. To avoid change is not only futile; it is dangerous.

“The companies that thrive are those that create the environment and culture in which change is embraced and encouraged,” adds Mueller. “When failure is seen as a learning opportunity innovation blossoms.” And where a culture of change dominates the corporate psyche, the company becomes the innovator, the entity that creates and dictates the change rather than the rest of the industry which follows and reacts to the change. Because progress usually follows experimentation, which inevitably includes several failed attempts, the most innovative companies are the least risk-averse. At very worst, a failed experiment is a learning experience; at best, it creates a revolution.

Change in a corporate environment could be echoed in our personal lives. If we avoid the change we will be its victims, if we anticipate the change and gear ourselves to meet the change (through up-skilling, appropriate thoughts and actions), we become the beneficiaries of change and have an opportunity to determine the outcome. We also need to permit ourselves to fail if that is a possibility. “We can move from a mind-set of believing that ‘change happens to me’ to one where ‘change happens through me,’” concludes Mueller.

Listen to Prof Jens Mueller discussing “Change is great as long as I do not need to change.”

Jens blends his teaching of MBA students and corporate leaders as Professor at Massey University and at universities in the USA and China, with a 30+ year career as founder/leader/director of global firms, often in the technology/health sectors. He is the longest-serving director of the $1 Billion PHARMAC medicine buying agency in New Zealand and has advised Crown Ministers and Ministries in health, business and global positioning of New Zealand. Jens’ work focuses on turnaround strategies to assure the long-term growth of organisations in competitive markets. Jens holds two Doctorates and three Master’s degrees, is a Member of the NZ Order of Merit and has authored/edited seven business text books. He lives in Tauranga – and in airplanes…


Outstanding performance? It’s all in the mind

How would you define “performance”? Getting stuff done according to plan, cost and time is usually the answer. Management theory used to be based on the practical, measurable outcomes of a job – getting people to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible and with as little expense and as much accuracy as possible.

But today we make greater demands on people’s creativity. The routine roles have been delegated to machines with a far greater capacity for repetition and accuracy than humans. We now constantly ask people to be imaginative, to think outside the square to be innovative and agile. We expect them to dig deep and to perform at their maximum whenever they are at work. Problem solving, creative thinking, critical analysis are on-going activities in the workplace and they place high demands on people.

But what does it take to perform at maximum capacity? How can leaders support their teams to deliver consistently above expectations? Massey’s Dr Patricia Bossons explains that research into the workings of the brain have revealed some interesting facts. “The brain, though not a muscle, has the ability to develop through use. For example, in order to improve one’s memory, one can train the brain to develop its memory zone (the hippocampus).” Repetition helps to carve out neural pathways and extension exercises helps to define new pathways. Most areas of the brain can be trained to improve, or to shut down, as needed.

Although the brain is a wonderfully flexible instrument that can adapt and grow, it also has some very primitive functions and in many cases these functions still have an impact on human behavior. We still refer to “fight, flight or freeze” reactions when faced with a threatening situation. Although there may no longer be sabre-toothed tigers on the prowl the brain initiates such reactions when faced with highly stressful situations from any source – even in the workplace, even from your boss or your colleagues.  Bossons explains that the “panic reaction”, in neuroscientific terms, occurs when one’s amygdala lurches into action and overpower the activity of other parts of the brain. Under such circumstances people revert to the most primitive instincts, and none of “fight, flight or freeze” encourage productive workplace performance. Those three instincts have subsequently expanded to include “tend and befriend” which is a more typical female reaction to external stressors. Either way the person in a state of stress needs someone who can help them to put their amygdala into neutral and work with them to contextualise the situation and re-focus on the solution, not the problem.

Only when the amygdala is under control and the person has access to their whole brain can they be expected to perform optimally. They need to be in a position of psychological safety, they need to feel a sense of well-being and confidence. Agility comes from a base of stability.

The brain, though wonderful, cannot simultaneously tolerate activity in its emotional and its task-focused areas. We have to prioritise one or the other, we cannot pay attention to both at the same time. But this does not mean we need to be victims of our socio-emotional cortex or be slaves to a task-focused orientation, convenient though that may be. Agility in action requires agility in mind, where people can switch quickly and frequently between the task and the emotional content of a situation in order to maintain a perfect balance and to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Leaders have an important role to play in ensuring that their demands for innovation and excellence are matched by an environment in which people feel confident, secure and able to perform at their best. Executive coaching is one of the best techniques for identifying and solving performance challenges in the workplace. Through coaching (and in particular through creating a coaching culture) we can help people to become unstuck in tricky situations, to feel that they are able to perform well and to give them the tools to better use the power of their whole brain to excel at what they do.

Listen to Dr Patricia Bossons discussing Neuroscience and Coaching, a user’s manual to the brain.

Well Formed Outcomes Use this tool to help define better outcomes for yourself. Outcomes help you think beyond goals to the ultimate ahcievement.

Patricia Bossons is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and has worked in Executive Education as a leadership development specialist, business psychologist and executive coach throughout her career.

She has recently taken up the role of Director of Executive Qualifications at Massey Business School, Massey University, NZ. Before this, she was the founder, and Director, of the Henley Centre for Coaching and Behavioural Change at Henley Business School, UK.

Patricia is currently designing and developing qualification programmes in this field at the professional master’s level for delivery in New Zealand through Massey Business School.