Having read “level-5 leadership”, then observed and heard stories about some leaders/managers, I occasionally wonder if those who are tapped for (or in some cases, conscripted into) leadership roles are more methodical, reflective, and deliberate in their managerial/leadership style, compared to those who aspired to manager/leader roles. Since learning the concept of “reluctant” leadership (read here, here, and here), I do agree that reluctant leaders seem to take the time…to listen, to ponder, to consider nuances, to take a longer and a wider view, when making a decision. Not surprisingly, some followers and bystanders see such leaders, especially in the early stage of their roles, as “indecisive,” “slow,” “weak,” or maybe even “incompetent.”
“Reluctant leaders” possess these qualities: “adaptability, humility, a capacity to bring others along in their efforts, and a plain old willingness to listen.” Studies on “reluctant leaders” have primarily taken place in the “service” industries where professionals are more willing to consider alternatives to the traditional “command and control” model of management/leadership. Most of these professionals, including potential “reluctant leaders,” prefer calling their own shots, or, designing their own projects. The sources of their motivation are mostly intrinsic. This fits in Dan Pink’s definition of motivation, in which “autonomy” is one of the three key elements for better performing organizations; the other two are “purpose” and “mastery.” When we take power and control out of management – and I question that we ever really need them in certain sectors – how do managers proceed?
Reluctant or not, managers of today’s quick-paced and volatile economy need to dance to different tunes. In this fast moving economy, as well as in the social world, we all have to be a lot more flexible than we used to be. And since we don’t become flexible overnight, or as soon as a situation calls for flexibility, we have to develop this quality over time. So, a concomitant to “flexibility” is a willingness to listen to others and absorb multiple perspectives…regularly, frequently, constantly over the long term.
Perhaps we are still in a transitional phase in most organizations – switching from “command and control” to “listen and coordinate.” Transitional phase is inherently in flux, marked by uncertainty, and requiring skills in negotiation, political maneuvering, and knowledge of when to bend and when to insist. Maybe this is why many younger professionals are reluctant to step into leadership roles? Further, whether working to the new or old model of management, there is a great deal of “politics” involved in management, an aspect most professionals try to avoid. And, while there is no shortage of manipulation, maneuvering, or concealment among the reluctant leaders, I suspect that the tenor of “politics” as endured by this century’s flexible leaders is different from the old school of manipulation, power, and deception. I hypothesize that a reluctant manager is likely to manipulate situation rather than people. A manager once described to me – and he has a pretty high EQ, emotional quotient — “If a manager thinks he’s a ‘Manager,’ he’s likely to manipulate people. If he doesn’t see himself as a manager first, he’s likely to focus on the situation.” Imagine this: Upon seeing a fire, a traditional “Manager” might say, “YOU, go and put out the fire, and use the hose closest to you.” A “reluctant manager” might respond differently, “Fire, let’s put it out.”
Given the above definition and description, “reluctant leaders” may be cut from very different cloth than the traditional “command-and-control” type of leaders. For instance,
- A sense of humility may mean: “My colleagues know more than I do,” and therefore “I need as much input to help me as possible.”
- A sense of resolution may mean: “This is about the health of the whole organization,” and thereby “I need to build a majority, preferably a consensus on the bigger picture.” It follows then that reluctant leaders have little need to obfuscate; they tend to be more open about their thinking process.
- There is a built-in paradox in “reluctant leadership:” “I despise playing politics, so I will adjust my approach so as to minimize the politics in my decisional and operational environment.” However, paradoxically, “In order to minimize my political involvement, I need to be cognizant of how others are playing politics around me.”
As I have indicated before, we cannot, and should not, examine leadership without considering followership. What would the people “following” a reluctant leader be like? They need to see their leaders’ professional record as equal to, or superior to, their own. They are given plenty of room to develop their own skills; they accept being challenged even while they don’t want to be directed or managed. While they may not like playing politics (as if they could totally avoid it), they are sympathetic to the leaders’ occasional need to act politically.
The key to the relationship between the reluctant leader and his followers lies in one of the elements mentioned earlier, “autonomy.” It’s paradoxical, and that’s why it’s fascinating. It is precisely when a leader is willing to relax control of people, letting them determine their own courses of action, that people are willing to “follow” the leader’s vision. Conversely, in a professional organization, a controlling manager, hungry for more power and control, is likely to alienate his people. The committed professionals are still going to aim for excellence in their work, but they may not always have the controlling leader’s vision in mind. In such a scenario, the work done by the “reluctant” followers isn’t likely to cohere with the organization.
In abstract, “reluctant leadership” feels tiring. I wonder if reluctant leaders/managers stay in their positions for very long, especially compared to the command-and-control type. What do you think?
Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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