The RSA



Serve to lead

Much of what we read about leadership seems at odds with our experiences of it in action. Frank Hore and David Low FRSAs have observed many leaders in action and think they know why.

For over 25 years we have seen ‘leadership’ as more a function of ‘the led’ than of ‘the leader’; managers and staff had a prescription in their heads of what their leader should look like and how he or she should behave (although all those we have looked are male). There are probably various reasons for this, including the impact of stressful times and job insecurity and a history of exposure to extreme command and control methods.

Leaders were perceived to fit the prescriptions that had been drawn up for them and given considerable latitude in their actions and pronouncements; as long as they refrained from doing anything completely opposed to the expectations which their people held for them, they were seen to be just what we want. They were identified as precisely meeting our needs today, even when objectively – in the eyes of external observers, for example – their thoughts, speech and actions were not even vaguely near the mark.

So what does this prescription sound like? It might go something like this: ‘someone who’ll fight our corner’; or ‘someone who’ll keep the bad guys (in head office, say) away’; or maybe ‘someone who’ll face up to the problems we have’ (which was not always the same as ‘someone who’ll do something about them’)!

In practice, it seemed that just about whatever leaders went on to do, they would be seen to be fulfilling their brief. This means that leadership can be out of the hands of leaders and may simply represent figments of the imagination of others, or a product of the baggage they carry.

At first glance, this reading seems to take a lot of pressure off many ‘leaders’ since it suggests that they can hardly go wrong as an appraisal of them as a leader must turn out well whatever action is taken. It also seems to put the onus firmly back onto group CEOs and boards who can no longer use the contrivance that good leadership on the ground will get us there to set impossible targets.

But is this true? We have certainly seen it play out in a variety of ways, sometimes with a CEO instinctively appreciating the ‘role’ that has been assigned by staff and happy to play that part in the interests of keeping the peace. Sometimes the price the CEO pays for peace is to stay in the dark about what is really happening in his organisation. Of course, sometimes this peace is achieved at the cost of sleepless nights, as corporate/personal responsibility – and the burden of ignorance and uncertainty – weigh heavy.

The answer, of course, is intervention. Yet intervention – its robustness and frequency – tends to be that spoiler that the audience will object to. It may not be in the script that staff have penned for their leader. What is more, these projections on the part of staff can begin to condition CEOs’ behaviour over time, sometimes to the extent of impairing their judgment about what it is they are being paid to do. It is easy to become complicit in performing a piece of theatre, shaped by audience participation.

In the course of our work, a number of CEOs have remarked that knowing when to intervene (and how strongly) is the most difficult aspect of the job. We maintain that leadership is about getting that right, about staying on top of what is happening but in a manner, which minimises the downside of doing so. It is about understanding the organisational culture intimately without ever becoming an intimate part of it.

No doubt there are a clutch of readers out there bridling at these thoughts: are these guys suggesting that ‘leader’ means nothing at all? We are not suggesting that by definition they are not good at leadership but we are suggesting that what they may think is ‘good’ in this context ain’t necessarily so! We would certainly praise those who are prepared to act contrary to what their organisation thinks it needs and wants at times and their skill at judging the strength of intervention finely; producing results without disturbing the ether too much.

Years ago an insurance client asked us about his broker incentive scheme: was it working or was it simply rewarding intermediaries who would have given them the business anyway? Here we have a parallel issue: are you seen as a great leader because of what you do, or would you have won that medal for standing on your head and singing the Marseillaise?

In our work we try to break down the conventional ‘subject’/’object’ distinction by asking who in an organisation ‘makes’ the leader. We highlight an inherent conflict; that between the leadership role and the management responsibility which faces leaders at the top. A leader must understand his or her organisation’s ways of thinking and behaving in order to grasp its potential and in order to define what would be too much for it.

But at the same time leaders must distance themselves from that culture in order to manage it, resisting its influence to fit in and become one of us.That is to say, people’s expectations of a leader’s behaviour can come to shape that behaviour. That may win great leadership accolades within a confined patch but could also readily block a leader from doing what primarily he or she is paid to do!


Frank Hore and David Low, Partners, The Service Management Partnership.

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  • Josh W

    Another consideration; perhaps what they are paid to do and
    what they need to do to continue to be paid are different things?

    For example, say a CEO takes this matter to heart and starts doing things,
    intervening in the company. What if in doing so they damage the systems that
    are already running the company without their interference, and so damage it’s
    profitability or stability, hurting their position?

    This idea has quite a bit of pedigree “the less the emperor does, the more
    that is accomplished” as the old chinese phrase goes.

    I don’t think it is totally true, but nevertheless, it should not be assumed
    that the written job description is a better description of what they need to
    do than a job description constructed heuristically by a wide spectrum of the
    company. A CEO’s job description is generally not created with any interactions
    on the part of people lower down in the company, and represents not only the
    interests of only a small amount of stakeholders, but also their knowledge.

    It almost appears as if, in the absence of ways for employees to specify what
    they actually need a leader to do, this
    theatre of flattery and wishful thinking builds up, to insulate the organisation
    against the dangers of poorly thought out interventions.

    In other words, perhaps good leadership is simply a positive way of stating
    “not what we feared”.

    So a poor leader is one that sides against their employees, ignores problems
    etc.

    In that sense it’s perfectly reasonable that the ideal leader would be
    inactive; he is so far from a tyrant he does nothing at all!

    A rational leadership position would then find the constraints within the
    specifications he has been given, and then find theories of active leadership
    that are compatible with it.

  • Josh W

     *Copied from notepad and the formatting went off.

  • Brian Monger

    Good article and ideas Frank and David.