Leadership is making a comeback

May 11, 2017

Read time 5 min

“Teams should be self-organising.”

“A leader should be empowering the team, not intervening in what the team does.”

“Actually, we should get rid of managers altogether.”

In my work as a coach, I get to see many organisations up close. I’ve met a lot of managers and leaders struggling with leadership in the crossfire of demands. On the one hand, they want to be good leaders and do their job well. On the other hand, they feel the need to give the power to their team and not micromanage.

The mental struggle between empowerment of teams and responsibility of managers has created a leadership vacuum. Difficult discussions are avoided and hard decisions left undone because they are nobody’s responsibility. This happens on all levels of organisations.

One key contributor to this is a dramatic shift in how we see leadership. Leadership thinking has moved from heroic leadership to servant leadership – that is, from one extremity to another – before taking its contemporary form.

Leader as a hero, leader as a servant

I’ll take this moment to explain the key difference between two metaphors, a hero and a servant.

In heroic leadership, the leader is perceived as a role model that, ultimately, saves the day. The leader always knows best what to do, and they could perform all duties of their underlings, only better. In servant leadership, the leader exists to serve his or her team. The team knows best what to do, and the leader’s role is to help them perform as well as possible.

A heroic leader always leads from the front: when leadership is needed, they step up and take the floor. The principal idea is to separate planning (i.e. thinking) from doing. Leaders plan what to do, and underlings only need to execute.

A servant leader always leads from behind: when leadership is needed, he or she steps back and gives the floor to the team. The leader’s role is to create the best possible circumstances for the team to flourish.

Personally, I value many of the key points in servant leadership. However, the servant mindset has left me a bit powerless at times when no one takes needed action.

The leader – A host that keeps the party going?

To me, the game changer has been host leadership, a leadership metaphor brought to life by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey.

In this analogy, the leader is compared to the host of a party.

The host is clearly responsible of certain things: getting the party started, introducing people to each other, making sure the buffet is stocked with treats. However, the way the evening ultimately goes – and whether the party is remembered as a good or a bad one – always depends on the guests.

When there’s a problem that needs to be solved, a host leader’s first thought is to analyze the situation and decide whether he or she should step forward or step back. If things are running smoothly or someone else is already taking care of the problem, the host can stay in the background, observing the party. They can even disappear to the kitchen for a while.

But if the situation requires an active role, the host can speak up. They can take the spotlight to get things running smoothly again, or join others in working on the problem hands-on.

With that, I’ve seen managers and leaders starting to talk about leading and being a leader again. And that’s an extremely positive sign.

Leadership is making a comeback!

Managers at all levels are recognising that they’re allowed – and even required – to take an active role in moving difficult things forward when needed. That, in no way, means undermining the inherent power and responsibility their teams have and should have.

This can actually be seen as a paradox in modern values in general. We value freedom more than ever but at the same time, we crave for strong leaders that can make sense of the complex world.

A recent example of a situation where a new kind of leadership took place was within a team that was struggling with their backlog tool. The tool didn’t serve the project’s needs but actually caused more problems –  delays, poor communication, whatnot.

When the opportunity to change it to a simpler one arose, something interesting happened. Instead of going to company IT or asking for approvals, the project manager said: “You know what, let’s just start using the simpler tool and see what happens. I’ll deal with our management later if someone has something to complain.” Ultimately, no one did.

The comeback of leadership I’m sensing doesn’t mean a return to command and control. It means taking responsibility for creating the best possible environment for teams and projects to succeed. It means recognising that sometimes, responsibility means stepping into the spotlight and taking action. It means acts of leadership on all levels.

What the comeback of leadership is NOT about is stopping to listen, coach and facilitate, or that we should toss all existing collaborative practices. It simply means taking a few good tools back into the leader’s toolbox.

In this post, I’ve deliberately made simplifications and taken short-cuts in explaining my three leadership metaphors (hero, servant and host). However, for those interested in getting to the bottom of things, I warmly recommend the book “Host” by Mark McKergow and Helen Bailey. Looking forward to inspiring conversations and different points of view!

Illustration by Aino Sipilä

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