We all like to think of ourselves as moderate, reasonable beings, but as a society are never too far from extreme viewpoints – call it the peer pressure effect or our desire to fit in. As an example, the collective view on leadership has swung completely from the authoritative, masculine figure exerting total control to the unobtrusive nurturer of talent. We made no pause along the way to ponder the possibility of exaggeration and overreaction. Dare say the leader still has a very real and involved role in the organization and you are likely to be black listed and deemed a heretic nowadays. Say the leader should politely evaporate, and the audience immediately erupts in applause.
And so, every article on leadership proudly shared on social media, and reinforced by thousands of nodding “Likes” now says this: the leader should hire smarter subordinates and get the ##!!@@ out of the way. Really? What about our leaders’ job security? Fine, you got me, we shouldn’t be worried – they could always take the initiative to colonize Mars! But what about the logical incompleteness of the argument? Is there more to the story that these fine writers on leadership avoid? Is the story more complex than we are lead to believe? These very questions prompted me to write my take on leadership. I am specifically after substantive contributions that leaders still make, not their soft attributes such as courage, passion, morality, etc.
So let me start arguing in favor of a substantive job description for leaders, and call out two key requirements: sense-making and visioning, or simply orientation and direction setting, or simpler where are we and where do we want to be?
Let me next introduce the sense-making attribute of leadership through a quote from the distinguished economist W. Arthur Brian: “what distinguishes great leaders from average ones is their ability to perceive the emerging nature and rules of a game as they are playing it.” So, since the future represents a discontinuous break with the past, leaders have or should have the ability to be the first to sense a corresponding shift to new patterns. This ability must be exerted through a distinct cognitive process and double-loop learning, simultaneously perceiving and pondering perception, fits the bill beautifully. So in essence the leaders should posses a superior capacity for higher order cognitive processing, which in turn allows them to lead into the future. They are more aware, and likely possess a higher capacity for abstraction then the rest of us. These are not abilities that are as easy to spot as those of an expert juggling best practices. Neither are they easily testable (except by successful outcome), nor are they easily transferable (no algorithm based method to replace the human sense-making heuristic is within sight). But because these abilities are not as obvious as those of “brilliant” experts, they should not be discounted with the “hire smarter experts and get out of the way” slogan. Smarter experts cannot replace the sense-making wisdom of the leader.
The second substantive part of leadership, visioning, has to do with designing that future, or what Ackoff calls a “state that is considered to be significantly more desirable than the current state”. According to the same Ackoff, “an inspiring vision is the product of a creative act, of design; inspiring visions are works of art and those who formulate them are artists”. And so it is through the creative act that leadership achieves status of art. Thus creativity is a must on the the leader’s job description.
Now it is highly likely that similar higher order cognitive processes are tapped by both sense-making and ideation. This is because both are discontinuous, non-deterministic heuristics, rather than sequential, neatly organized processes. They also likely originate in the right side of the brain, which can process wholistic patterns. Without going down the cognitive science path, my point is that leaders do have to possess additional capacities than those who follow them, and they can’t and should not move out of the way. At the same time this is not equivalent to an authoritative view on leadership.