The Leadership Riddle

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

A riddle wrapped in an enigma.

During a radio broadcast in 1939, Winston Churchill said Russia’s actions is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. One could paraphrase it and say leadership is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, and the key to understanding it is changing the way we think about it.

Thousands of books and publications are written about leadership and millions of dollars spent on courses and conferences to turn people into leaders. I would like to fish out a few issues from that soup.

For the dominant clockwork perspective of thinking, leadership is a thing, hence, like a machine, one can take it apart, study the parts, and based on that, design a process for becoming the perfect leader, which is why we have business schools and leadership courses for budding leaders.

An ongoing debate is whether leaders are born or made. Schools and universities assume anyone can be made into a leader, but, as Belbin’s research showed, not everyone has the aptitude to be an effective leader. Leadership theories, like the story of the 6 blind men and the elephant, each focus on a single aspect of leadership, and when you connect them together into a story, it looks something like this.

It means a mechanistic perspective of leadership in fact looks at something quite complex, which it either simplifies, ignores, or is unaware of.

Leadership publications and courses don’t spend time on asking the question, how does one become a leader, other than getting trained to become one. Essentially, one can become a leader from inside or outside organizations; from inside via promotion or being appointed, and from outside by being elected or appointing yourself.

Promotion as a rule is through seniority or patronage, and to be appointed, organizations, in keeping with their mechanistic perspective, create a snapshot of the perfect leader and then try recruiting a person best fitting it. Promotion doesn’t care whether there is a fit or not, and appointment assumes there is but without any evidence for it, hence both frequently turn into failures. The key to this riddle is the organizational and human need for stability and maintaining the status quo.

To get yourself elected requires self-promotion and sometimes manipulation, and if you have enough resources in general and particularly money, you can appoint yourself. What one can see then is becoming a leader is actually the outcome of a social process, and, as far as the debate goes, leaders are mostly made by social interrelationships and interactions, not born with a golden leadership spoon in the mouth.

It means there is a second way for looking at leadership which gives it a very different slant, namely as emerging from the activities of the human social system, which, as we know, is very complex. From this perspective, leadership is not something you can construct, it is a social role.

All organizations need people for keeping a group together, which, as a role, is an ongoing social process, and involves influencing people towards a common goal. Best fit in this case doesn’t matter what traits you have, or what your style is, it depends on a context and what is required at the time. Churchill was a great wartime leader, but was not so great after the war, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot were terrible leaders, but they could lead because the conditions at the time favored someone like them. It means if you succeed as a leader now, it doesn’t mean you’ll still succeed when conditions change, and they do, all the time. We don’t take this fact seriously.

Leaders have the power to influence because they control coercive forces such as gangs, armies, police forces, legal systems, etc., control valued resources such as money, land, knowledge, etc., the authority of their leadership position giving them control over sources of information, social networks, the ability to organize, etc., or through charisma.

Leading is what you do, leadership is a role which you can’t describe without knowing the context. You can’t lead without followers, but you can be a leader without followers. Which opens Pandora’s Box; leadership books, articles, education, and courses, seldom if ever mention followership, other than in passing. In a complex social system, followers are a crucial part of leadership, but for clockwork leadership, they are sheep following a shepherd. For clockwork thinking you become a leader by climbing a mountain and then sitting at the top sending messages down like Zeus on Mount Olympus. For complexity thinking leadership is part of the mountain; leaders shift as the mountain moves and the mountain shifts as leaders move.

The leadership-followership system involves an unspoken social contract. Leaders are expected to pursue ends benefiting everyone, while followers trust them that they will do so by giving up some control over how valued resources are distributed and controlled, and their ability to make decisions. That leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. Because power gives access to assets, friends, praise, admiration, health, the ability to attract better partners, etc., there is a risk that leaders may become motivated to maintain the power gap and maintain their privilege out of self-interest.

A democracy works on the same principle, with the same consequences. At the time of the 2019 General Election in Canada, 72% of the population were registered voters, two thirds of them voted, which means roughly half of the total population, and the winning party was elected by one third of voters who voted, which means 22% of all registered voters when you include those who didn’t vote, and 16% of the total population if you include those who couldn’t vote. In terms of the social contract, the responsibility for the 84% who didn’t vote for you is a heavy one, which is why successful democracies understand being elected means an ongoing dialogue with those who didn’t vote for you. That is the enigma. Instead, incumbent parties act as if they speak for and make decisions with the consent of most Canadians, which they don’t. They are ignorant of or ignore the crucial unspoken social contract around leadership.

A minuscule number of people can appoint themselves as leaders in health care, very few vote in professional elections which makes them all but meaningless, and health care organizations are functional autocracies in which leaders are either promoted through seniority or patronage, or appointed based on job descriptions designed for maintaining the status quo. That is the riddle. Health workers are not recognized as followers and can neither elect nor fire their leaders, hence the purpose of leadership in health care is keeping those who promoted or appointed you happy. The difference between a democracy and autocracy is the number of people you must keep happy to maintain power.

The riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma is health care is an immensely complex human social system in which followers matter, a lot, and leaders are part of that system. Health care leaders, just like our political leaders, are not speaking for their followers, they speak to them. The key is acknowledging the complexity and the unspoken social contract that implies, which requires respecting all workers, differences of opinion, and ongoing dialogue and conversation. That’s not happening right now.