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André Spicer

Cass Business School

Professor of Organizational Behaviour

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How to smash leadership barriers


It has become a common mantra that it is vital to develop leadership in our organisations. Many firms spend thousands of hours and millons of pounds trying to develop their leaders. But when would-be leaders return to the workplace, they find the all the inspiring ideas about leadership are impossible to put into practice. Why is it that even the best ideas about leadership are often so difficult to implement?

Barrier #1: Indiscriminate application

Like many management fads and fashions, leadership can easily be over-used to address issues it is wholly inappropriate for. In a series of recent interventions, Henry Mintzberg has pointed out our obsession with leadership has meant many executives neglected the nuts and bolts of management. Good management entails defining clear, difficult yet achievable goals; carefully monitoring progress on these goals and ensuring that incentives are aligned with these goals. Recent studies by the London School of Economics have found that good management is an important driver of productivity within firms. Neglecting management in favour of creating visions, developing values and coaching employees can be fatal for organizations. It can mean they do not deliver on their core goals, and instead spend their time managing meaning.

To overcome this barrier, it is important that leaders are sparing about when they do leadership. They need to carefully assess the issues which they are faced with and consider whether it is an issue which requires leadership, management or some other co-ordination mechanism. Keith Grint gives a useful rule of thumb for making this judgement [PDF, 326KB]. He suggests that when executives face a tame issue – something which there are established solutions for – then management may prove to be useful. However, when they face a wicked problem – knotty issues which has no pre-established solution – then leadership might be more appropriate. The reality is that most of the time, the issues which organizations face are more likely to be tame problems than wicked problems. This means, most of the time, good quality management is likely to be the solution. 

Barrier #2: You

Throughout their career leaders invest heavily in the skills and identities of being a manager. This means they find it difficult to drop the managerial tool-kit and avoid command and control. They think it has worked for them in the past, so why shouldn’t it work for them in the future. In other cases, aspiring leaders continue to cling to their identity as being an expert. This means when they are faced with a problem, they have a tendency to solve it themselves, rather than support others to solve it.

To overcome this barrier, it is necessary for aspirant leaders not just to work on developing new skills, but also a new identity. Research by Gianpiero Petriglieri has found that one of one of the most valuable aspects of attending a full time MBA programme for many managers is that they are able to experiment and play with new identities. This gives managers a chance to step away from entrenched sense of self in their former workplace and try out new ways of seeing themselves. For instance, an engineer might use the MBA as an opportunity to try on different new roles like general manager, financier or marketer. Doing this in a non-threatening space where you are not burdened with others past expectations can be a great help.

Barrier #3: Lack of time

Research by Stefan Sveningsson and Mats Alvesson found that many middle managers claimed they spent their time doing leadership, but in reality most of their day was taken up with administrative duties and other mundane issues such as answering emails. The result is that their time to do leadership is significantly squeezed. Often many managers find themselves doing leadership after hours once their normal administrative working day is done.

To address this barrier to leadership, people need to actually create time in their day-to-day schedule where they can do leadership. This means ensuring there is time in the everyday schedule to consult with and support staff, think about broader issues, and communicate visions. To do this, would-be leaders need to be ready to give other up activities. Some potential candidates might be lengthy email sessions, pointless conference calls or actively working on substantive tasks. Giving things up can be difficult, but it should create space to focus on the tough work of practising leadership.

Barrier #4: Lack of willing followers

Often after being bitten by the leadership bug, managers start trying to develop visions, engage staff, inspire and motivate. In some cases, staff are receptive. But in other cases, employees see leadership at best as a mildly irritating waste of time and at worst a serious infringement on their ability to do the job. In one organisation we studied at Cass Business School, we found teachers who were faced with an enthusiastic leader found their time diverted from working on their core task – teaching students. Instead, they needed to spend hours on leadership related activities such as coaching sessions, visioning exercises and so on. The result was alienated followers and a despondent leader.

To address this barrier, leaders need to start by adopting a leadership on demand approach. This involves carefully thinking about when they followers might need leadership, and when self direction of other forms of coordination is fine. In many knowledge intensive workplaces, employees are often quite self-motivated and know very well what needs to be done. They need leaders to push their causes upwards or provide feedback and support. But in many cases, interference by leaders can actually get in the way. So the best thing many leaders can learn to do is to step aside and let their followers deliver.

Overcoming these four barriers to leadership is not easy. It is a big challenge to encourage executives to intelligently choose between leadership and management techniques, change how they see themselves, create time to do leadership, and to understand when their followers actually need leadership and when they can get on with their task themselves. But if organisations and their senior figures do not take on these barriers, it is likely that all attempts to lead will remain just that: attempts.     

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André Spicer

Professor of Organizational Behaviour

Read more from André Spicer