EMBA: What to Ask Yourself if You Want to Be a Strong Leader

by mba

Followership – leading in diversity

David Ward is the founder of Alignomics Consultants. As executive director of UNITECH International (until August 2020) and leadership coach, David has helped talented engineers from diverse cultural backgrounds prepare for a future career in management. Coming from an engineering background himself and being in leadership and consulting roles throughout his career, he has a comprehensive insight into what it takes to be a successful leader today.

Are leaders born or made?

I believe it’s a combination of both. You have to have some natural skills and you can then develop them. But you need to have this basic character on which you can develop. There used to be a trend, particularly in the technical fields such as engineering and pharma, to put people in leadership roles only on the basis of their technical expertise, e.g. the best engineer or the best chemist. So, they would try to lead from their technical expertise, rather than their leadership expertise. This created a lot of challenges. One of the issues was that once someone on the team got technically smarter, the respect for the leader diminished.

What determines a successful leadership style?

The success of leadership sits in several areas. Whatever the task of the team or organisation, is that goal being achieved? Is there a successful conclusion? That is the obvious tangible success. However, there are also intangible successes such as the condition of the team when they finish the activity: their comfort level with the way they worked, how they feel about their individual contributions to the success, whether they want to work together again, and whether they can endure to the next challenge.

Do successful leaders have only one leadership style? Do they evolve over time or adapt to different situations?

It is dangerous to have only one leadership style. The leader should be flexible to meet the leadership needs of the people they are leading, but with an understanding of what it takes to move the project forward.

Do different generations require a different leadership style?

Indeed, different generations demand a different leadership style. As a consultant, I’ve worked in many situations where the leadership style suits the generation of the leader, but not that of the team they are leading. Leadership style approaches are often set by the top of the organisation, and the expectations of the senior management get fixed.
But the demands of the workforce about how they would like to be led may be different, especially if they are of a different generation. So there is a mismatch and the middle managers feel confused, especially when their KPIs and bonuses are based on senior management expectations. This creates a lot of tension around leadership.

With the switch to remote work lately, a lot of leadership has been done virtually, in video meetings. However leadership, as we have known it so far, relies on a very fine set of sensitivities around the impact you are having as a leader and the needs of the people you are leading. Those are very difficult to capture in a video call, because you’ve lost a lot of your almost subconscious sensitivities. In a virtual meeting, it is very difficult to detect small facial expression or tone of voice changes. Face to face, a highly sensitive leader can be very quick in their adjustments to suit the need. In a virtual meetings you don’t have this speed and broader sensitivity.

The younger generation – who are much more comfortable in a virtual environment – are more confident as virtual leaders, but they are often challenged in face-to-face situations because they are digital natives.

How has leadership training changed over time? What are some of the most effective approaches in leadership training?

The change in leadership over the past 40 years has been enormous. Back then, leadership was taught as a set of very rigid behaviours and was very much based on positional authority. That didn’t work for long because society changed. Consequently, a much softer model of leadership evolved where the leader had to be inspirational, and we got into a whole era of “vision-mission” leadership style. The belief was that if you set the vision right and are clear on the mission, everyone will be right behind you on that journey. That was the middle ground in leadership training.

However, the workforce shifted over time and we entered the phase of the “intelligent workforce”. People started coming to work for much more personal reasons than before. In the previous period, it was not cool to say “I love my job”, but then interpersonal connections became the basis of the new leadership style. We became much more holistic in our approach. In this environment, if the team were loving their work, success would be guaranteed. So motivational leadership emerged. All that sounded good, read well, and boosted new training programmes.

Today, the demand from people is not to be led, but to find someone they would follow. Now the trend is to engage with the natural ambitions of your team to get the job done.

So, over the last 40 years the approach has swung from training the leader to lead in an authoritative way to training the leader to create space for the people to achieve their own ambitions and align that to the desired organisational or project goals. I refer to this type as the “enabling leader”. In this case, the leader’s job is to clear the path for people to excel in their work.

What is followership and what is its role in leadership today?

I’ve been using this term – followership – for about five years now. “What makes a good leader?” is the wrong question to ask yourself if you want to be in that role. The correct question is “Why would anyone follow me?” Focus on what people admire and value about you. Do you have a value system that matches theirs? Do you have empathy for them in their situation?

In short, these is no leadership without followership. But this makes leadership nowadays quite challenging, because the leaders of today need to bring along much more diverse teams. Companies pride themselves on diversity and diversity brings a lot of value. So you have a very wide spread of followers, but how do you connect them together and have them follow you?

Here is the biggest fact that prospective MBA students need to recognise: you cannot motivate another person. The only thing you can do is understand their motivation. Based on their motivation, you can lead them in a direction aligned with the company goals. Followership is the key because your followers drive themselves and you need to harness that as their leader.

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