In a world that is crying out for great leadership, the social media and airport bookshops are full of apparent insight and help. I searched on Google for ‘Become a better leader’ and on the first page I was recommended 20 ways… 10 ways… 7 steps… 4 simple things… and the like. The implication that we can all improve the quality of our leadership stands in direct contrast to the idea that leaders are born and not made. Education is similarly based on the idea that learning leads to improvement and executive education shares the same underlying assumption.
The idea is straightforward: work out your strengths and limitations, work on the latter and improve overall. Yet others argue that we should not focus on our limitations for improvement. Instead, we should focus on our strengths and make them world class. There is prima facie evidence in favour of both propositions. Yet, at Henley, we believe there may be a different way to think about the idea of great leadership altogether.
Consider the possibility that it may be exceptionally difficult, even impossible, to become a complete leader. What if the demands of leadership are so broad that it would be a very rare individual who could master it all? The mindset of the strategist pulls the thought process away from detail and into overviews; away from the present into the future; away from linear sequences and into images and pictures; away from facts and into possibilities. The strategist deals with uncertainty because the strategist is dealing with tomorrow; the operator with facts because the timeframe is immediate.
Exceptionally, extraordinary individuals can master both, but in a recent study¹ it was found that only 8% of executives were good at both devising strategy and implementing it whereas fully 35% were considered not to be very good at either. In my consulting career, moreover, I and my colleagues assessed several thousand executives from all over the world and found not a single example of a leader who was world class in all aspects of leadership.
Now these two examples of incomplete leaders and leadership may constitute the mother of all sampling errors, or there may be a fundamental truth for us all to face: that complete leaders are rare as hens’ teeth. The complete leader may be hard to find but complete leadership is not: it is simply the province of teams rather than individuals.
Executive leadership development at Henley is based on the idea that complete leadership is to be fostered among teams of leaders who have been put together from individuals who are different but complementary. We do not try to make individuals into complete leaders because the evidence suggests that this is unlikely to succeed². We work with a different challenge: to make it possible for those who are different both to value the differences and to work together effectively.
In this way, we seek to ensure that leadership teams can operate well in the strategic, operational and interpersonal domains. As the context changes, leadership teams that are complete because they are complementary can switch the focus of their leadership between members whose capabilities are best suited to the current specific demands. Individuals tend to find this much harder because their habits, preferences, perceptions and skills have been adapted to narrower ranges of experience.
Complete leadership can come from incomplete leaders working effectively together. Indeed, this may be the only way that complete leadership is to be created. Yet this will require the mastery of new capabilities which favour collaboration over competition and realism over hubris.
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¹ Paul Leinwand, Cesare Mainardi and Art Kleiner (2015) Only 8% of leaders are good at both strategy and execution, Harvard Business Review December 2015
² David Pendleton and Adrian Furnham (2016) Leadership: all you need to know 2nd ed, London, Palgrave Macmillan.