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Pushing leadership off the pedestal: how we can all aspire to ‘wise’ leadership

The study of leadership has been a troubled discipline from an academic perspective. For many years, people have been trying to pin down the essence of leadership and have largely failed.

Magellanic penguins heading out to sea for fishing on a sandy beach, Falklands.

Leadership has been likened to an abominable snowman – the footprints are everywhere, but the snowman is nowhere to be seen.

“It is common to think of good leadership as being ‘heroic’,” says Dr Keith Goodall, Senior Faculty in Management Practice at Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS), and lecturer on the Cambridge MBA, “If we read some accounts in journals or we read memoirs by famous leaders, we are often given a misleading view of successful leadership – that one heroic figure with rare talents saved a struggling company. The idea that a single person can turn around a company is a nonsense. You need a lot of help, and you need to work with very smart people.”

So, what are the alternatives? What approach should you try to develop as you progress in your career to leadership roles? And what can business school teach you if leadership is such a nebulous topic?
First, it is important to think about the behaviours which are necessary for effective leadership in different situations, rather than personal attributes that individuals may or may not have.

“It is useful tool to think about the processes that need to happen in order to make leadership effective,” adds Matthew Jones, Professor of Information Systems at Cambridge Judge, who teaches MBAs with Keith on this topic. “This idea makes leadership much more accessible – something we can all aspire to reach, through understanding and practice.”

Simply find followers

One useful definition of leadership is from Peter Drucker, a famous American management guru, who said very simply that the definition of a leader is someone who has followers. So, you’re not appointed as leader, but you say something, you make a suggestion, and if people like your suggestion, they follow, and you become the leader.

That’s very useful because it suggests that leadership is not simply attached to a position but can exist at all levels of an organisation. You don’t have to always have somebody who’s appointed to a formal role. In a complex, dynamic business environment, that helps flexibility.

Emergent leadership

Leadership can then be ’emergent’: the idea that the person with the most relevant knowledge or skills steps up, leads the team, then steps back when we reach another challenge that someone else may be better suited to deal with. Some businesses actively look to recruit people who can lead appropriately in this way: they understand that leadership is situational. The same businesses try to screen out applicants who like to be permanently in control and who find it difficult to be good followers as well as good leaders.

Self-awareness

Leadership, from this perspective, requires acknowledging that none of us are good at absolutely everything. And this requires self-awareness. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Because none of us are very gifted mind-readers, it helps if leaders and team members can make themselves ‘discussable’ and talk to each other about both what they bring to a team and areas where they need help and support.

“You might, like most of us, believe you can ‘read’ other people accurately but, sadly, the research suggests otherwise. Talking to each other about our strengths, weaknesses and behavioural preferences in different situations helps us work more skilfully together,” says Keith.

If leaders are honest about their own weaknesses, it can help create ‘psychological safety’ – the feeling that this team is safe for individual risk-taking, that I can make suggestions and offer ideas without feeling I’ll be made to feel stupid. And leaders need all the ideas they can get.

Space to explore

Leadership is discussed in this way during the flagship Management Praxis (MP) course on the Cambridge MBA, which is led jointly by Keith and Matthew.

“Management Praxis is about the ‘doing’ of leadership and management and provides an opportunity for students to develop more flexible, self-aware and skilful practice related to their leadership ambitions,” says Matthew.

In order to achieve this blending of theory and practice, Management Praxis runs in parallel with a live project working with a local company. This Cambridge Venture Project (CVP) offers a safe environment in which students can try out ideas from the MP course, enabling them to reflect on and experiment with different forms of leadership and with working in a team.

In particular, because there is no appointed leader, students are encouraged to reflect on ’emergent leadership’ in their team project, using the skills and experiences of each member to bring different ideas to the table, and allow those in the position of expertise to take the lead in different areas.

“Heroic leadership is a dangerous myth,” says Keith “There are more effective versions of leadership, which focus on achieving tasks with and through others. With the CVP we deliberately put teams together from highly diverse cultural and professional backgrounds and ask them to deliver an outcome for a real client, while both exploring the process dynamics in their team and reflecting on their own behaviour.”

“The CVP enables us to bridge the gap between hypothetical and experienced cases – students get to apply the technical skills they learn more effectively in a live setting, working through our ideas in real-time. We ask them to keep a diary and use these entries, recording their reactions and reflections, to inform their final assignment,” says Matthew.

Ultimately, the Cambridge approach is about how to become ‘wise’ in leadership, not just ‘smart’. It is this wisdom – exercising contextual judgement rather than relying on technique – that sets a good leader apart and allows you to navigate the challenging landscape of human behaviour. And that wisdom comes from experience, practice, and reflection.