You can take the leader out of the system…(no really, you can)

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In the past few weeks there have been a number of high profile leadership moves in the Australian business world. Last week the CEO of Blackmores resigned with the board flagging the need for “transformational change” from his replacement while media veteran Ita Buttrose has been made chairperson of the ABC. What is perhaps most interesting about this, to me anyway, is that the media coverage and assumptions underpinning these moves highlight an outdated view of leadership and leading. Let me explain. First, a short trip through the history of leadership theory.

For much of human history leaders have been thought of in terms of heredity. Think Kings and other inherited titles. Over time this was expanded to military power (often also drawn from the elites) and the power of the church. Looking at leadership through this lens is what is often called trait theory which posits that leaders are born and not made. If leadership is a trait or set of traits then they cannot be taught and so one is born to lead. This made a lot of sense when one was indeed born to rule based on who one’s parents were. Onwards into the industrial revolution and first world war however and people began recognising a need for more and better leaders and so a theoretical shift occurred towards behavioural theory. Behavioural approaches to leadership argue that leadership is a set of behaviours that can be taught but that some people might be naturally better at than others. You may recognise this approach if you have ever gone on a leadership training program. Leaders need to be visionaries, good communicators, etc. Over time there has been a greater recognition that leadership can be influenced by context (situational approaches) and also the personality of the leader (charismatic and transformational approaches). All of these approaches to leadership focus on the leader as central to business and government. Not only is this unfair to the individuals who can’t be all things to all people, it fails to take into account a more nuanced view of organisations taken from complexity approaches.

Anyone who has read this blog before knows that I am an unashamed advocate for the insights that complexity approaches offer for understanding organisations and so it will come as no surprise that I think it applies to leading and leadership too. I’ve had the chance to think through these issues as a long-time L&D person but also in teaching the subject Leading Learning at UTS where we explore contemporary approaches to leading. I’ve written on this topic before here and here where I questioned whether our traditional ways of developing leaders were appropriate in complex organisational contexts.

In this post, I want to introduce the idea that leaders should not be positioned as central to organisational success. What I mean by that is that if you look at contemporary approaches to leading – such as complexity, practice theory or postmodern approaches – they take a systemic view of organisations. If we accept that organisations are systems then you also need to accept the premise that placing so much expectation on one person to be the visionary, the model citizen, the strategist, and everything else expected of “the leader” is pointless as it is the interactions within the system between people/people, people/things, people/spaces, etc. which shape the system. This is why, I strongly suspect, attempts at culture and procedural change are often very difficult to shift even with a change of leader. A leader may be a public figurehead for an organisation but in reality has little control over how the organisation runs and the practices which hold behaviours and attitudes in place. Indeed, I have seen research using social network analysis which has shown that CEOs are often some of the worst connected, most isolated people in the social networks of organisations.

Emergence and unpredictability are core elements of complex adaptive organisations yet we continue to approach management and leadership in the same mechanistic way as we have since the days of the industrial revolution. Leaders are a part, and a product, of the overlapping organisational systems that they are a part of. Leaders therefore need to be treated and developed to have a systems mindset, a commitment to flexibility and adaptability, and a sense of their interdependent place in the whole rather than as a “first among equals”.