Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leadership by consensus and compromise, leadership as making the final decision

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on September 27, 2010

I recently posted two notes:

Effective Operational Execution Means Never Taking Your Staff for Granted and
The Myth of the Natural Leader – cultivating effective leadership skills

and in a sense this is a direct continuation of both of them. When I wrote that second posting I mentioned in passing the general issue of leadership style, citing as a few possibilities, autocratic and authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire. In a real sense these are simply cartoon extremes when presented out of context and as unqualified labels. And effective leadership can mean shifting in style and approach to meet changing needs and priorities.

There are times and circumstances where the most effective route to leadership is that of the autocrat and authoritarian, as unpopular as that may seem in a democratic society. The military generally takes a fairly rigid top-down management and leadership approach, and can be quite autocratic and authoritarian in that regard. The basic argument in justification for this is that:

• Decisions that have very substantial consequences to both lives and safety and to the success of larger missions have to be made quickly and carried out synchronously and consistently across broad fronts of command.
• If more junior officers simply decided on their own what to do and when to do it overall strategic planning and execution would be impossible and the military organization would reduce from structured, organized system to disorganized mob.

On the opposite extreme, when creative opportunity is thrown open to crowd sourcing possibilities, a more democratic and even laissez-faire approach may make more sense.

• This is definitely true when managers and teams have to be able to function independently and when time and other organizing constraints allow for that and with opportunity to share best practices developed.

The important issue in this for a manager and leader is in knowing which leadership model would work best in the here and now and in when that decision may need to be adjusted or replaced with changing needs and circumstances. And of course it is important that an effective leader be able to convincingly convey when and how leadership approaches followed do change and why.

Turning back to an early statement in this posting, I said that the major categorical approaches and styles of leadership are simply stereotypical cartoons if viewed in the abstract and out of context. I want to follow up on what I mean by that to round out this posting.

• Even the most authoritarian and autocratic leader needs to both communicate out and gather feedback in if they are to be successful long-term. This may simply mean that they collect feedback and perspective to help them make more effective unilateral decisions. But leading deaf and blind as a favored approach leads most often to the nearest cliff edge so this type of feedback is vital.
• Even more democratic and fundamentally laissez-faire leaders have to be able to make decisions and both arbitrate and resolve disputes when necessary and they have to know when that is in fact necessary too. If action and consistency in execution and follow through are to happen, someone generally has to be there who can make the final call on what is going to be done, by when and by whom. Granted, taking recourse to this type of resolution may be the exception for some systems but these exceptions can become real roadblocks if not addressed so this is vital too.
• Leadership styles cannot in practice serve you well as simple stereotypes. Leadership is not a static goal; it is a dynamic process and effective leadership is largely about recognizing need for change when change is needed, and managing that understanding and its execution to create team effectiveness and cohesion.

That said, we all have personalities and fit at least somewhat into our own specific personality types. So some approaches come easier and more naturally to us and come to our minds as most needed and appropriate more readily. The people we would lead have personalities and preferences too, and different members of the same team may need to be involved in different ways to stay effectively engaged and productive in your team.

And effective leader needs to know what approaches they start out favoring and thinking in terms of, and what approaches they find more problematical. This is not about striving to do what you find awkward and uncomfortable, but rather of knowing yourself as a team member and as a manager and leader of teams, and stretching yourself to be more flexible and creative in the paths and approaches that you can comfortably develop and follow in both sets of roles.

At the same time a manager and leader needs to know their team members and how best to communicate and work with them too. So even in a primarily laissez-faire environment and context, some team members may need more specific and directed guidance to stay on-focus and on-priority. And even in a more authoritarian system, some team members can be more productive if given a freer hand for developing creative options to work from.

These sources of understanding and flexibility translate directly into increased ranges of options in finding, developing and executing on value propositions that can drive your business or organization forward.

And with this effective leadership is still largely an art, and one based on communications and planning, as much as on execution and follow-through.

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