Can one learn leadership? Every winter semester I pull my students through the whole spectrum of “Leadership Theory Parts I and II”: Taylorism; French & Raven; Blanchard; McGregor; Maslow et al. At the end of the semester I have them test their knowledge in a tricky exercise involving a climbing rope and blindfolds. They have to – whilst blindfolded – form, storm, norm and perform as a team and lay the rope (which they are not allowed to let go of) in a predetermined shape on the ground. And yes, they always achieve the objective – one way or another. In contrast I have experienced this exercise as a team member of highly paid and experienced managers and witnessed first-hand the utter failure to even manage a plan, let alone achieve even half of the objective. Although to be fair, what the managers did achieve (as opposed to the students), was a whopping great conflict of personal differences, with which the rest of the seminar was used to sort out. So what was the difference between these two groups?
A business acquaintance of mine once introduced me to the “power of trust” as a basic concept of leadership. He argued that if there is no trust between the leader and the led, then the possibilities for sustainable leadership are extremely limited and indeed most probably restricted to a short period. Without trust in human relationships there is however a form of leadership and to reference French and Raven, it is the positional power of coerciveness and reward – the proverbial carrot and stick. That works for a while as long as the (micro) manager exclusively owns the processes and information as a means of control. I believe in the long run, this strategy fails. No (high performing) employee deliberately hangs around for very long in such a situation. I´ve seen this happen numerous times.
Again considering the group of students and the experienced managers with their climbing ropes and blindfolds, what I perceived was extreme differences in levels of trust. The students – in their seventh semester – were close-nit. They were just entering their final thesis, they have common objectives and after 3 and half years spent on campus, an intrinsic trust to one another. In contrast the managers came from varying business units of a large company and were “thrown” together to improve their leadership skills and develop as a leadership group within the company. Each manager had his (the group was all male) own agenda and personal career objectives etc. Each was competing for power and influence before the board. Instead of collaborating to achieve the climbing rope objective, all the micro-politics came out in the exercise and trashed any trust that might have been there at the outset. The evening log fire at the beach was a flop.
Trust as a subject is rationally difficult to grasp. It is one of those things we intuitively feel as being present (or not) in human relationships. To get a grip on the term, let us start with Peter Drucker´s definition of management “turning resources into production”. Now consider that what leadership does in a company is to apply strategies (resources) to achieve objectives (production). On the one hand the objectives should be such that they inspire people, bringing out their best qualities both in skills and collaboration. Secondly and as a rule, it is the leader who drives the strategy in order to achieve those objectives and this is the key area where trust within the team and across teams can emerge. It is the means utilized to achieve the ends that define so much about an enterprise. There are of course coercive means, non-compliant means, even illegal means etc., thus the old excuse for bad behavior “the ends justify the means”. In such an environment sub groups form, secrecy becomes endemic and there can only be mistrust and suspicion between people.
Approaching the skill of leadership whith consideration of social and ecological factors allows decisions to be made under the reflection for example, of waste reduction, for the good of the many, for sustainable growth etc. In utilizing social and ecological factors in decision-making processes, our unique human form of emotional intelligence is an influential force that significantly influences behavior both of oneself as a leader, and as a member of the collective (the business unit being led). Over time common values and understanding emerge in the group, which in turn develop (forms and storms) and fortifies the culture (the norms), thus producing the high performance unit that every person blessed with the opportunity to lead can aspire to. If you get there it’s the best job in the world!
Trust is a human trait that is available to us all. You can´t simply buy it by attending a leadership seminar, doing an MBA or reading a book. Trust has to be earned and shared unconditionally as a gift. It can be rejected, withheld, it is breakable and can be destroyed in a second. Yet for all its non-tangibility and fragility, it has more power to achieve than anything else in the leadership toolbox.
About the Author
Mark Rees is the Chief Operating recfifO at Secucloud GmbH, Hamburg. In his last position Mark Rees was Managing Director of E-POST Development GmbH in Berlin, a subsidiary of Deutsche Post. There, he led an international team comprised of several hundred employees in agile DevOps development teams, and was responsible for employee direction, as well as the entire budget in the areas of IT security, DevOps, quality assurance, operations and user experience. In his work as COO at Secucloud, Rees applies his expertise in agile leadership and his many years of experience in interdisciplinary IT organizations in the Media and IT security industries.