The Right Leader?
Editor | On 17, May 2018
A story should have a beginning, a middle and an endâ€¦ but not necessarily in that order.
– Jean-Luc Godard (Film Director)
Who makes the best leader?
If you had to choose between JFK, Jack Welch, Sir Richard Branson or Woody Allen, which one would be the best leader for your organisation? Your latest innovation project?
It depends, right?
There is no such thing as â€˜the bestâ€™ leader. Ask Jack Welch to run Virgin, or Woody Allen to run the United States, or Sir Richard to make a movie, and I donâ€™t think it would take too long to work out that things wouldnâ€™t go well. Leadership, in other words, is context specific.
The question is how does context affect the choice of the right leader?
What is it about Woody Allen that makes every actor on the planet want to feature in one of his filmsâ€¦ for almost no fee? What is it about Sir Richard Branson that makes him the most likely person to make â€˜space tourismâ€™ a reality?
The dependency seems to distill down to two critical factors: do we know what weâ€™re doing? And do we know how weâ€™re going to do it?
Which sounds like an invitation to construct another 2×2 matrix. Maybe one that looks something like this:
Figure 1: The Leadership How/What MatrixÂ
Regarding the â€˜howâ€™ dimension, the two main scenarios are we either know how weâ€™re going to do what weâ€™re about to do, or we donâ€™t. Woody Allen, or any film director with any experience, knows precisely the mechanics of how to make a film, whereas, when President Kennedy announced the intention to â€˜put a man on the moon before the end of the decadeâ€™, he had absolutely no idea how to do it.
From the â€˜whatâ€™ perspective, however, he knew exactly what he was asking for. Again there are two basic â€˜whatâ€™ scenarios: we either, like Kennedy, know precisely what weâ€™re trying to achieve, or we donâ€™t. Putting Neil Armstrong on the Moon is a very clear goal. Whereas, â€˜make an interesting filmâ€™, or, to take a classic Branson example, â€˜space tourismâ€™, is anything but precise or clear.
Brought together the two â€˜howâ€™ possibilities and the two â€˜whatâ€™ possibilities give us four different types of leadership context:
â€˜Paint By Numbersâ€™ â€“ we know what needs to be achieved, and how weâ€™re going to do it. This is Jack Welch territory. It takes us to the heart of â€˜Operational Excellenceâ€™ and optimization of existing systems and protocols. It is, in so many words, the world of SixSigma and clear goals and objectives (â€˜the lowest rank 10% of managers will be firedâ€™).
â€˜Movie Directorâ€™ â€“ we know how to get things done, but we donâ€™t know what weâ€™re going to do yet. Which in turn means a need to recruit the right people at the right time (â€˜casting is 65% of directingâ€™ â€“ John Frankenheimer), creating the right atmosphere and then letting people get on with things in their own way. Woody Allen is (was?) particularly good, for example, at having his actors improvise a large proportion of their lines, but also knows that everything has to be in the can by a certain date and within a clear budget.
â€˜Questâ€™ â€“ the â€˜Man on the Moonâ€™ scenario in which we know what needs to be achieved, but donâ€™t yet know how it will be done. Which requires a charismatic leader with sabre-rattling, â€˜follow-me, follow-meâ€™ traits. Think JFK. Think Steve Jobs and â€˜a thousand songs in my pocketâ€™.
â€˜Fogâ€™ â€“ the â€˜we donâ€™t know what weâ€™re doing, and we donâ€™t know how to do it eitherâ€™ scenario. The pioneering innovation project in which the only â€˜knownsâ€™ are a vague sense of overall directionâ€¦ that, in all likelihood, will evolve into something quite different later on as the exploration of possibilities meanders around, often apparently without aim. The archetypal â€˜fuzzy-front-endâ€™ project in which leaders have to possess an extraordinary capacity to hold as many contradicting ideas and directions as possible, incubate them, and have the patience to know that the â€˜rightâ€™ directions will eventually emerge, until, â€˜space tourismâ€™ evolves into Virgin Galactic.
So much for the four different leadership scenarios. What kinds of leader does each one require? An undoubtedly tricky (â€˜fogâ€™-like?) question to try and answer, but one that eventually condenses down to another 2×2 matrix-worth of characteristics: starters and finishers; dominators and collaborators:
Figure 2: The Leadership How/What Matrix & Critical Leadership Characteristics
Hmm. I think I can feel a new PanSensic tool coming alongâ€¦