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Where’s the F in leader?


This article submitted by David Williams, Managing Director GNP Ltd

The North East Quality Group have been considering the key qualities of leadership. They recently invited me to share my reflections on the leadership traits that emerged from our Top Team 2000 competition, which involved 30 organisations of various sizes and types across the region.

Preparing for the presentation sent me back to the copious notes made by the observers and myself during that year-long challenge. As I sifted and distilled the comments it struck me that there were three distinct styles of leadership, which had a major impact on the fortunes of the teams. I have classified them as the three Fs.

(editors note: for 'he' read 'she' and vice versa)

The Forceful Leader

The forceful leader dreams of victory. He sees the competition as a battle and himself as Julius Caesar. He is typically egocentric, self-confident and driven by the challenge. His style makes the forceful leader over-competitive, over-serious, temperamental and dogmatic. It narrows his vision, closes down his options, and hinders his relationship with team members. The forceful leader takes the “do as I tell you” approach to the team. Dominant by nature, he is a fault-finder who misses the genuine qualities resting in his team and excludes people who could make a positive contribution to the team effort.

His communication style is ‘Listen to me’ and his body language says ‘Obey.’ He places himself at the control centre and demands constant reports from other team members. He perceives himself as a motivator, with his constant talk about winning, but he is actually a dictator who commands no genuine loyalty from the rest of the team. The characteristics of the forceful leader are especially evident in a situation where creative thinking is needed. His tendency to find fault - the ‘Yes but…’ response - thwarts exploratory discussion and inhibits the production of original ideas.

Anyway, he has no time for idle talk; he is on an urgent search for solutions. This single-minded approach discourages divergence, limits thinking, and leads the team down one blind alley after another. You might think that planning would be a key strength of the forceful leader, and indeed he is likely to be the first to announce, ‘Here is the plan.’ The problem is that he is so fiercely focused on the task in hand that he fails to see the bigger picture. Being action-orientated, he does not take the time to visualise the desired outcome, consider and check options, step through the strategy, build in time checks and reviews, or effectively deploy resources. He just wants to ‘get things done.’

In his rush he leaves behind the tools he needs to do the job - his team. Being mistrustful and critical of their abilities, he spurns delegation and tries to do too much himself, sending others off on trivial and meaningless tasks. As a result he soon becomes bogged down in the mire of his own poor decisions and is left roaring with frustration and helplessness. This leader fails by attempting to force a team culture based on his generalship without building the bonds of mutual respect that would release the latent energies of the whole team.

The Feeble Leader

The feeble leader dreams of release from a role that he is clearly not cut out for. Full of self-doubt, his instinct is to duck away from issues and decisions. His role model may be Pontius Pilate. He is unadventurous by nature and therefore uncompetitive. Frankly, he is dull. The feeble leader takes a ‘do what you like’ approach to his team - not in a spirit of Sixties-style permissiveness, but in a tone of indifference that comes from a wish to evade responsibility. He is an outsider to the team and is wary of them. If they make a group decision he is unlikely to question or oppose it - he will simply submit or abstain.

He is a pessimist who feels all the problems are on his shoulders. His body language says ‘Leave me alone.’ When called upon to communicate to the troops he finds it difficult to command attention. The typical team norm is babble, with the leader in the midst of confusion asking feebly, ‘Who’s listening?’. An incurious and narrow-minded thinker himself, the feeble leader cannot spark creativity among the team. Confronted by an idea or suggestion, his standard response would be ‘Well…’ and the moment is lost. By being non-committal he manages to avoid decisions and side-step possible solutions. Not having the wit or the decisiveness to set out his own plan, nor the confident relationship with his team that would allow them to build one together, the feeble leader is left like Mr Micawber hoping that something will turn up. ‘Who has a plan?’ he will ask vaguely.

The truth is that even a ready-made plan would not save this leader and his team. Paralysed by deadlines, he takes refuge in procrastination, shirking both resolution and action. His option to delegate responsibility to the team is closed because they neither trust not respect him enough to accept it. This leader fails by forsaking the team culture that might have saved him from the consequences of his own ineptitude.

The Facilitative Leader

The facilitative leader dreams of possibility. Her role model is Socrates, the philosopher-inquirer. She is self-aware, alert and open to learning. Her style helps her to remain objective and consistent in her dealings with others. She has a cheerful disposition and is naturally optimistic. The facilitative leader’s approach to the team is participative - ‘How should we tackle this?’ She takes on the role of enabler and coach, supporting the team to do their best thinking and perform to their potential. She trusts the team and is respectful of their abilities. She gets the best out of them through encouragement and recognition. She is inclusive, a unifying influence on the team.

Her communication style is ‘I’m listening.’ The team are encouraged to engage in dialogue, with the leader at the centre of the collaborative conversation, drawing contributions from the others. She talks of possibilities and gives many non-verbal signals of support and praise. Her open-minded approach to problem-solving stimulates divergent thinking among the group, who are not afraid to suggest seemingly crazy or off-the-wall ideas. She helps the team to build on ideas - the ‘Yes and…’ response - before guiding them to a timely convergence on solutions.

The facilitative leader’s approach to planning is instinctively participative. ‘Let’s make a plan,’ she suggests. She is aware that decisions and plans of action need to be ‘owned’ by the group to be delivered effectively. She sees to it that resources are shared effectively and the team effort is co-ordinated.

In performance, she is a willing participant, happy to be led by others as occasion demands. She has the confidence in herself and her team to allow authority to transfer between members and to delegate even important tasks to those best suited to carry them out. Her special function is to act as the keeper of the larger vision, one who always has an eye on the wider view and a finger on the pulse of time, guiding the team to its destination on schedule. The facilitative leader succeeds by fostering team culture, integrating the group so that it functions with a single spirit in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

© GNP Ltd 2001. All rights reserved.


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