Leadership is such an interesting and tricky topic. We bandy the term around fairly loosely in the workplace, but it is absolutely central to understanding how to run a successful organisation.

The first, and most important, truth is that groups need leaders. A leaderless group soon ceases to be a group and everyone, smitten with their own uniqueness and independence, goes in their own direction. Nothing significant can be achieved this way. The collaborative effort of creating an organisation requires people who give up some of their independence and allow a leader to have additional authority in order to achieve the task.

But the concept of leadership is paradoxical as it is, at heart, a relationship rather than a set of skills. The effectiveness of a leader depends only partially on his or her skills and experience. The effectiveness of the leader depends on both those who hand down authority and those who consent to follow.

Think about situations where nothing much happens. A group of friends agree to go out for a meal. They spend some time discussing where to go. Some want to go to a cheap place, others for a nice meal. Some want to eat curry, others dislike Indian food. Some are concerned about the location, the time the meal will take, the lack of vegetarian, halal or low calorie options. The discussion, at least internally, can become personal and emotional. She always wants her own way. He is always banging on about needing Halal. They just want a boozy night out and I have no interest in that. I notice that Carla and Simon appear to be backing each other up – maybe they are an item. I am sick of indecisiveness but when I try to make a decision they turn on me. Soon the group disintegrates and each goes his own way, sometimes with two or three followers.

The group creates and allows the leader to lead. But getting “elected” as a leader is hard without authorisation from above. An example here would be someone standing for election. If they are chosen first by an established political party they will have the authority to speak on behalf of say, the Conservatives. In a sense they will represent the taxpayer, the home owner, the employer through the stand taken by that party. Standing as an individual is normally impossible – there is insufficient support for an individual and unless she is standing on a clear, live, local issue (e.g. the closure of a valued local service) and has a personal reputation and following.

So in order to be an effective leader we need three things:

Authority from above

A chief executive needs to be authorised by the Board to do the job. You may be familiar with situations where a board appoints a CEO but doesn’t allow him to do the job without constant interference. On the other hand a board who clearly understand its role and what is delegated to the CEO, who broadly supports her and challenges effectively, is a precondition for effective leadership.

Authority from below

A leader needs followers, otherwise he is just wandering around on his own. Clearly a congregation or a political campaign is motivated to follow the priest or the objectives of the campaign. But if they don’t like the leader they will drift off. Even when people are employed to follow the leader they don’t do this unconditionally. They will judge the quality of leadership offered and will withdraw some of their energy and goodwill if the leader doesn’t deserve their support.

All of us can be told Do this, or Come this way. But we won’t make much effort unless we see the point. This is our motivation.  We also need to be quite sure everyone else in the team is going to come along too. We need to trust the leader and that our colleagues share broadly the same purpose and enthusiasm.  Our motivation and trust arises in ourselves, conditioned by our previous life experiences and personality.

Authority from within

In addition to authority and followers we, as leader, need to have confidence in ourselves and our ability to fulfil the role. I bet you can think of an ineffective teacher who had no ability to inspire or control his class. He comes into the class looking frightened and fails to quell the row. He hesitates and fails to create an opportunity for himself. Soon the students turn on him, and subtly or directly undermine him. He is a victim and not a leader because he has not effectively taken up the role of leader and he confirms that he is incompetent.

All of us who are in leadership roles experience some self doubt. This is an important factor in providing leadership. We may be scared. But eventually we find a way of taking up the role and doing it well. Others are dependent on us, and like a first time parent, we make mistakes and learn as we go along. But when we take on a leadership role others gift us some of their individuality and power. We have to use this wisely to ensure the group thrives and does well. This can be a big challenge for many of us.

Image: Rising from relative political obscurity just over a year ago, 39 year old Emmanuel Macron has been elected as France’s new president, the country’s youngest leader since Napoleon. I for one will be watching closely to see how he’s done it.

What has been your experience of good or bad leadership?  Do you think effective leaders are inherently able to take charge and inspire or is it a skill picked up over time till the right moment? 

Subscribe to Kate's blog

Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.