It is clear that the political environment shapes the decisions and reputations of political leaders, just as events and climate within an organisation help to shape team leaders. Whilst studies and literature about what makes a good leader abound, can we recruit or assess an effective leader without first understanding the circumstances in which they are to lead?

From politics to office politics

Clearly, running a country is very different to managing a team, but some of the principles for effective leadership are the same.

1. No more “bosses”

Many have described Margaret Thatcher as a “headmistress” figure: demanding, stern and even scolding. Watching clips of Margaret Thatcher’s dominant, authoritative style (in Belbin Team Role terms, the classic Shaper with perhaps some elements of Monitor Evaluator in her desire of a hearty debate), it is hard to imagine a Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition speaking so directly today. Some argue that Thatcher’s policies (including closure of the mines and encouraging people to buy their council houses) showed the drive and determination of a Shaper, without the appreciation of the bigger picture which a Co-ordinator might show. Others have suggested that Thatcher understood the consequences, but decided to take action anyway.

As in politics, management and leadership styles in business have changed. Studies of Generation Y (the youngest members of the workforce) indicate that they do not expect an old-fashioned “boss” who barks orders, but a facilitator who values and makes use of their ideas and contributions. This is not to say that a Shaper management style is problematic, but simply that colleagues now appreciate – and expect – good communication and a consultative leadership style.

The flipside of this change is that, without the directive style of the Shaper, intentions are not so clear and politicians seem less keen to pin their colours to the mast for fear of losing popularity. Tony Blair brought Labour to power in 1997 with “Education, education, education”. An able orator, Blair demonstrated the best and worst of the Resource Investigator-Co-ordinator: he was an effective communicator, but also regarded as a manipulator whose words were sometimes seen to lack substance.

2. Don’t repeat your mistakes – or over-correct them

Having seen the damage done to Edward Heath’s government by successive political u-turns, Thatcher’s strategy was to stick to her policies. Her famous quotation: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning” was an effort to restore faith in her party and inspire trust in her leadership.

The leadership style of Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown (perhaps a Monitor Evaluator-Completer Finisher), was a stark contrast to that of Blair himself and Blair’s protégé, David Miliband, was rejected for the leadership perhaps because he resembled Blair too closely for comfort. In other words, the requirement was for something different to what had gone before.

Organisations too may fall into the trap of trying to “clone” a successful manager or indeed, trying to find the opposite of an unsuccessful one. Rather than simply reacting to what has gone before, it is important to examine the team’s priorities and objectives, and to find the person best suited to bring these about. Otherwise, the team risks stagnation or worse, reproducing the same problems and going round in circles.

3. Context is all

Winston Churchill, a highly-respected wartime Prime Minister, was rejected as a peacetime politician because his leadership style no longer fitted the political context. It is the same with teams: the characteristics of a good leader are not absolute, but dependent on the context in which they lead.

For example, a team dominated by Shaper behaviours may require a Co-ordinator manager who can draw out different contributions and take control when arguments start, rather than another Shaper to add to the fighting. A team with lots of social roles, but which is lacking direction, may require a task-focused manager to help productivity and prevent coasting.

Where the hierarchy and structure of an organisation permits, project teams can be created and disbanded for specific purposes, so that a leader can be chosen whose Team Roles are appropriate to the context of the other team members and the team’s objectives.

What can you do?

Do you know the Team Role composition of your team? Are you using the right person to lead at the right time, or do you just carry on with the same person, regardless of where the team is in it’s ‘life cycle’?

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