Leadership: what’s it all about?

Blog posts

21 Jun 2023

Stephen Bevan

Stephen Bevan, Principal Associate

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One of the great things about working in the fields of behavioural science and HR research is that they give us the chance to understand why employees think and act in specific ways and in particular circumstances. We do this through collecting data, making observations, conducting analysis and measuring outcomes. As a result, we improve our understanding of employee motivation, their willingness to work hard, their decisions to join or leave a company, the factors affecting their mental health, their willingness to share information with each other and to collaborate in high performing teams.

In general, the more data and observations we collect the more we can identify patterns in attitudes and behaviours - which allow us to help managers and HR professionals to formulate and deliver enlightened and evidence-based people management practices. Although we grandly use the term ‘science’ when we talk about this, it is commonplace to find situations where what we think is our ‘best’ evidence is confounded by groups of employees who think or behave in ways not predicted by what countless studies tell us to expect. This is what makes research on worker behaviour continually intriguing and (should) keep researchers in this field cautious about pronouncing too confidently about ‘what works’ or what ‘causes’ what in HRM and organisational psychology.

Although I'm a naturally curious person, after 40 years of working in these areas both at IES (25 years) and The Work Foundation (15 years) there is one major field of research which I've always been reluctant to stray into. That is the discipline of leadership. In part this has been because of the vast amount which has already been written about leadership over many centuries. What more could I possibly add to the wisdom of Plutarch, for example? My reluctance, however, has mostly been because leadership has always seemed to be a minefield for applied researchers given its reliance on elusive measures of personality, behavioural traits and personal influence.

In addition, effective leadership behaviours have always seemed to me to be hugely dependent on the disposition, needs and behaviours of ‘followers’ and very contingent on organisational context (‘towards which goal does the company need to be led?’; ‘does hybrid working require new leadership styles?’). This has made it hard for me to accept that there is one simple or ‘true’ model of leadership which suits all circumstances or one core set of behavioural traits which will reliably motivate any group of employees to deliver high-octane performance in any context.

This cowardly reluctance to research leadership doesn't mean I'm not intrigued by it. After all, I've worked under many notable leaders and observed many others up close in the course of countless research projects. Most significantly, I've had my own imperfect attempts at being a leader - mostly very awkward and uncomfortable experiences - from which you might expect me to have learned much about how not to lead. It was during a moment of reflection whilst undergoing medical treatment recently that I decided to note down my personal reflections on leadership based on my own experiences and, without having to pretend that they result from an elegantly designed applied research methodology. What follows is my humble offering. A post-hoc attempt, at the end of my career, to codify what I think I've learned about leadership in a way which may (or may not) help others at the start of theirs.

My reflections on leadership coalesce loosely around three themes. The first is my conclusion that ‘charisma’ or the hero model of leadership is dangerously overrated. The second is that leadership skills are worth nothing unless they can animate people to act. The third theme focuses on the essential ability of leaders to tell compelling stories about where an organisation and its people are heading and to build a sense of cooperation and belonging in plotting a course towards this destination.  Let me try to explain and illustrate each theme.

No More Heroes

A high percentage of the leadership texts you can buy in airport bookshops seem to focus on the heroic stories of how (mostly male) CEOs have single-handedly delivered stellar success in whatever business they either took over or built from scratch in Chapter One. These chronicles of tough decisions, personal sacrifice and single-minded determination can be very compelling. They reinforce the idea that leadership can often be a lonely business requiring a thick skin, the ability to face down the doubters, and the ability to inspire corporate transformation through force of personality alone. Frankly, I rarely believe a word of these tales. The more inspirational they are, the more my credulity is stretched. These accounts are often told through a rearview mirror which rarely allows for imperfections in judgement, blind alleys or embarrassing cockups. Yet my experience is that leaders are constantly having to make decisions without the benefit of all the relevant information and against impossible time pressures.

Mistakes here are inevitable, compounded by the lack of evidence relating to the outcomes of senior leader development which a recent IES review found to be disparate, small and weak. Most leaders - even exceptionally talented ones - have to surround themselves with other great talents to compensate for their often-numerous knowledge or experience deficits. This ability to form top teams with complementary strengths is, of course, also a strength of a good leader. But it makes a mockery of the idea that the CEO should command a stellar salary and be eligible for a monster bonus because they alone can drive the business forward and they alone are bearing the risk of failure. My experience of some charismatic leaders is that they can often start believing a little too much in the intoxicating power of their own charisma, and that they sometimes need to be reined in before they really foul things up as a result.

It's The People, Stupid

While I've always winced uncomfortably at the notion of ‘followership’ in the context of leadership research, it's hard not to conclude that there is something important that happens when employees decide to devote a portion of their discretionary effort towards a corporate goal articulated by a competent leader or leadership team. Much effort has gone into trying to define and describe the elusive combinations of traits and behaviours of leaders who can galvanise employees in this way. Among these attributes are said to be authenticity, visibility, accessibility, openness, clarity, vision, empathy and single-mindedness.

In a study I led about high performing businesses, we found that (compared to below average firms) leaders set high standards, communicated their expectations clearly, gave timely and constructive feedback, secured resources for their teams and then backed right off and trusted these teams to get on with their jobs. In fact, as part of a survey of 2000 employees I conducted during lockdown, the most important attribute which employees wanted from their leaders was ‘a person who trusts me to get on with my job’. Interestingly the least desirable attribute of the options presented in the questionnaire was ‘someone with technical or professional expertise in the same field or discipline as me’. IES colleagues have argued that only by engaging with people - and the human aspects of change - will organisations be able to become change-ready and change-capable and ensure their ability to respond effectively to change.

My own leadership experiences have always been in environments where I have led organisations or teams full of very clever people. These had the advantage of being high energy environments where colleagues all had a clear grasp what we were trying to achieve and often had unwavering confidence in their ability to get us there - often despite, rather than because of, my efforts. On more than one occasion I found myself trapped in what I called a ‘decision paradox’. If I took a decision too quickly - often because timeliness was a big factor - I was accused by some of not being consultative enough or even dictatorial. If, by contrast, I consulted widely before making a decision, taking account of the fact that most clever people like to have their say, I was accused of being indecisive. All of this put me in mind of the work of Rob Goffee and my old friend Gareth Jones who famously said:

‘…if clever people have one defining characteristic it is that they do not want to be led. This clearly creates a problem for you as a leader.’

It seems to me that in many so-called knowledge-based organisations with clever employees, who demand a say and whose consent for action it can often be important to secure, it is important that leaders need a nuanced insight into human psychology, the drivers of employee wellbeing and that they need to be benevolent guardians rather than traditional command and control bosses.

Telling a Compelling Story

The American sociologist Richard Sennett wrote that ‘leader’ is the most cunning word in the modern management lexicon. By this he meant that most leaders devote considerable energy to convincing employees that they are on their side when they are in reality trying to shore up their positions as the ‘ruler’ of the workforce they command. Sennett takes a ‘pluralist’ rather than a ‘unitarist’ view of the firm. This means that, in his view, bosses and workers only have a limited number of shared goals or interests and that leaders have a stake in promoting the inherent tension which results to help them exert control and to assert their right to manage.

Part of me has always felt that the pluralism which Sennett describes is a common feature of most organisations and that the role of leaders is to navigate the asymmetry of power and resources that this necessitates in ways which minimise conflict and optimise fairness and consent. A big component of this navigation is a need to craft and socialise a compelling set of stories about the purpose, goals and direction of the organisation in ways which are credible with the workforce and which animate them to exert effort on its behalf. There will always be the (often justified) cynicism that these stories merely dress up a fundamentally exploitive relationship between leaders and the led in more palatable language. My own experience is that a leader who can articulate what I rather grandly call a compelling and intellectually coherent ‘meta narrative’ about the organisation and its purpose, can find it much easier to engage colleagues in the process of formulating and delivering strategies, business plans and performance and productivity targets - which command wide respect and acceptance.

By ‘meta narrative’ I mean the broad sweep commentary around the economic, social, technological and market context within which the organisation is seeking to be successful. This all allows the articulation of a more detailed set of goals, targets and aspirations around which resources will be marshalled, and a small but credible number of specific priorities which will be the core focus for the coming year. Done well and in a consultative manner, I've seen this approach convince even the most cynical colleagues that they want to participate in the collective effort to succeed, even out of curiosity. This type of storytelling is not about snatching at vague and hackneyed ‘sunlit uplands’ stereotypes. Clever people sniff these out instantly. Rather, these stories have to balance some aspiration and vision with authenticity and realism.

Professor John Adair, one of the UK's leading leadership academics, was always fond of quoting the head of a UK college course in the 1930s, who said:

‘..it is a fact that some men possess an inbred superiority which gives them a dominating influence over their contemporaries, and marks them out unmistakably for leadership. This phenomenon is as uncertain as it is mysterious.’

If nothing else, it would be hard to find any modern scholars or practitioners who would agree with any of these views. Yet it seems to me that we still struggle to know how much leadership in contemporary organisations relies on traits we can develop in people, or which are innate. We also struggle to know whether, in some circumstances, leaders who wish to be benevolent guardians or coaches need to take a firmer and directed ‘grip’ and exert a dominating influence over their contemporaries.

For me, it was always the struggle with ambiguity that undermined my confidence as a leader. The overwhelming sense that, no matter how conscientiously I did the job and whatever decisions I took, I'd get most things badly wrong in somebody's eyes. This, together with the fact that this bothered me so much, probably meant that I would always struggle to do the job well. This is why, ultimately, the many leaders I've worked with who embraced the role with enthusiasm, energy, dignity, skill and conscientiousness, have my upmost admiration. Being in a leadership role was easily the most difficult thing I attempted during my professional life precisely because there was no manual. It was also hard because I could only tell if some decisions which I or my leadership colleagues made were correct several months after we've made them.

I guess this partly explains the elusiveness of leadership as a branch of the behavioural sciences or HR research. It confounds most attempts at definition, measurement and prediction. Yet without dedicated competent and imaginative leaders and leadership teams, few organisations would function or grow as effectively as they do. This is why we must not give up the quest to understand why good leadership matters and to support those brave enough to take on the leadership responsibilities that I frequently found so onerous.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.