What it is, What it takes, How to identify one, and how to close the Gender Gap

Leadership Explained

Jorn Verweij
07 Nov 19

An original article by Decision Free Solutions.

Shown here are a summary and the first two sections of the article “Leadership Explained — What it is, What it takes, How to identify one, and How to close the Gender Gap”. The full article — including footnotes, links and the references — is available as PDF [here].

A summarising introduction for busy leaders

The “heart” of “Leadership explained” consists out of four parts. The first part concerns the definition of what leadership — the act of leading — is about. Staying clear of the false dichotomy between “leaders” and “managers”, it identifies a leadership-role instead: “The leadership-role is to create, sustain and communicate the conditions required to achieve the organisational unit’s desired outcome against minimal risk.” This role can be found in many (hierarchical) positions throughout the organisation, and, per position, translates into different tasks and responsibilities.

The second part begins with recognising that those who are in hierarchical positions have to deal with constantly changing conditions and new unique challenges. This is the case also in what are otherwise stable environments, as anything which is out of the ordinary will be escalated up the hierarchy. It then identifies the one essential ability required to take on the accompanying leadership-role successfully: perceptiveness. Perceptiveness — “to become aware, to come to realise or understand” — is elemental in dealing with change and unique challenges. It differs from mere observation in that it comes with a certain type of curiosity, a desire to link the observed effect to a cause.

As someone’s ability to perceive is, for all intents and purposes, constant, it follows that not everybody is suited to take on the leadership-role in any given environment. In the second part four leadership-types, and four types of environment, are identified. Rather than “to train leaders”, organisations are thus encouraged to identify the environments in which individual employees — with a certain level of perceptiveness — are able to take on a leadership-role successfully.

The third part explains how to assess someone’s level of perceptiveness. Someone’s ability to perceive can’t be measured, but it can be observed. It is explained that someone’s — or some organisation’s — ability to perceive shines through in a range of linked behavioural characteristics, many of which can be readily observed. Based on these observations still other linked characteristics — which don’t lend themselves for observation — may readily be presumed.

The fourth part explores the implications all of this has on the “gender gap” in leadership positions. This part identifies hierarchical decision making as a root cause for the gender gap. It argues that the way to reduce the gender gap is an indirect one: it is what happens when organisations become more efficient. As such, the extent to which the the gender gap in leadership-roles is disproportional to the ratio of women in the overall workforce is a measure of organisational inefficiency.

Leadership explained provides a conceptual umbrella for much existing writing on leadership, provides new perspectives to look at leadership-related findings, but foremost and above all open up new avenues for leadership-related research.

The ideas contained in this article follow from the approach of Decision Free Solutions.

The debilitating nonsense of the “Leadership industry”

Over the years I have read my pile of “management” books covering a wide range of topics. Among them are classics like “Lean thinking”, “The Goal”, “Heart of Change”, “Thinking fast and slow”, “Start with Why” and “Reinventing organisations” [1-6]. They can be considered management literature, for providing the interested reader with profound insights and or a new perspective.

Still many other management books have value and are interesting within a certain, narrower context. But when the topic is “leadership” suddenly the wheels come off and with a bump we land at the other end of the management book-spectrum: pulp. Then we hold in our hands something that may be well-written, uplifting, fun and totally identifiable. But ultimately lacking practicalities, guidelines or anything else of lasting value that can be implemented in our own specific situation.

Books on leadership can, on occasion, be thoroughly interesting and thought-provoking. “The art of war”, “Losing my virginity”, “Primal leadership” and “Shackleton’s Way” [7-10] come to mind. But you have to look hard to find interesting books on leadership. The topic of leadership appears to be a carte blanche for anybody with and also without time on their hands to turn their personal experiences into “valuable leadership lessons”, with a sample size of exactly one.

What most of these leadership books have in common is an appealing one-liner everybody can relate to, and a practical value for the reader of about zero. On HBR.org and LinkedIn such one-liners are regularly turned into a stream of popular “leadership articles” with the nutritional value of a soundbite (see e.g. [11]). They are the funny cat videos of a platform “connecting the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”.

The underlying cause of this unfortunate situation is at least twofold: there is no comprehensive definition of what a “leader” or “leadership” actually has to do, and more often than not it is assumed that you too can become a leader, if only… Often followed with yet another suggestion as to how to best rid yourself of your time and or money.

This article will take up and resolve this situation, provide a comprehensive and new view on leadership. This new perspective on leadership may allow you to identify new tasks and responsibilities in your position, and change the way you lead and or the way you view your leader. It may also be the starting point for a range of new ideas of your own — from how to recruit key personnel to how to best run an organisation based on the environment in which it operates.

The act of leading

The Oxford dictionary defines a leader as “a person who leads or commands a group, organisation or country”, and leadership as “the action of being a leader”. On the one hand this is hard to argue with — CEOs and bosses are generally considered leaders. On the other hand it is also extremely unhelpful. If there is such a thing as a “good” and a “bad” leader, and if we want to talk about “leadership qualities”, we must first establish what it is that leaders should achieve. When does a leader actually lead? The Oxford dictionary defines leading as “to set (a process) in motion”. But what is it that has to be set in motion, and to what aim?

If we take the definition of a “leader” literally, then anybody who leads or commands an organisational unit — of whatever size — is to be called a leader. In practice, organisations often make a distinction between a “leader” (or leadership) and “managers”, the way they also distinguish between higher-, middle- and lower-management. But this distinction based on the position in the hierarchy will here be ignored. The topic of this article is “leadership”, not some kind of authority that comes with a certain position in the hierarchy.

Still, for a sizeable group the distinction between leaders (who “lead”) and managers (who “manage”) is real. Some thinkers believe leaders and managers are somehow discrete entities, requiring an entirely different skill-set [12,13]. In their view people are either leaders or managers, each with their own traits and characteristics. Many popular “Leader versus Manager”-lists circulating ad infinitum on LinkedIn support this view. Other thinkers believe that leadership is simply part of management, or that, in any case, any categorical distinction between leaders and managers is artificial [14, 15]. But without a definition of what it implies “to lead” this argument can not be settled.

In today’s dynamic, interconnected and increasingly complex world, the dichotomy of “leaders” and “managers”, as if they are two distinct species without overlapping responsibilities, is false. A leader staying clear of all things management related is as rare as a manager never facing a situation where leadership skills are required. Today’s organisations harbour many different “pockets” of expertise and specialisms which all have to collaborate to achieve the organisation’s aim, and which all have their own characteristics and unique challenges. These organisational units have to be lead, and their resources have to be managed. These responsibilities are generally carried by the same person.

Where many positions throughout an organisation’s hierarchy require the same to person to both lead and manage, leading and managing are still different tasks requiring different skills. Across the organisation, different positions will come with different demands on leadership- and management-skills.

To be able to have a discussion on leadership, we must first identify that we are talking not about a type of person, and not about a hierarchical position either. We are talking about a role: the leadership-role. What this role looks like, what it takes, and how important it is in any given function depends on many factors. Most importantly, however, this leadership-role must be first defined. So here it comes.

This definition will now be dissected and explained:

  • The organisational unit — This merely indicates that the leadership-role is required anywhere where people collaborate, be it a team, project, department or organisation as a whole.
  • Achieve the desired outcome — This can also be read as achieving the ‘goal’ or ‘aim’ of the organisational unit.
  • Against minimal risk — In absence of unlimited resources, and, possibly, in the presence of competitors, desired outcomes are not merely be achieved “one way or another”. They are to be achieved against minimal risk. There are two types of risk to be minimised: outcome risk and resource risk. The leadership-role concerns itself with minimising the risk the desired outcome will not be (fully) achieved, or will be achieved against (many) more resources than minimally required.
  • The conditions — A library can be filled with books written on “the conditions” the leadership-role is to establish for the organisation to be successful. For a certain organisational unit, operating within a certain environment, with a certain established culture, with a collective of people with certain characteristics, a certain book — offering a unique perspective on how to create the conditions for this one particular situation — can be written. Fortunately, the combination of logic and the provided definition of the leadership-role allows for a generic description of what these conditions are. To achieve a desired outcome it must first be transparent to all involved what this outcome is. In order to minimise risk, the experts in achieving this outcome are to be identified. These experts must be able to fully utilise their expertise. This requires that experts and non-experts are able to communicate with each other (to prevent non-experts from feeling the need to control experts), and that “hierarchal decision making” is overcome (to prevent that someone disregards an expert’s substantiated choices merely on the basis of his/her hierarchical position). In the approach of Decision Free Solutions [16] four steps (DICE, [17]) and five principles (TONNNO, [18]) have been identified which comprise the conditions to fully utilise expertise. This approach also identifies that most organisations will not be able to instil these conditions — which collectively constitute a culture — if only for not having sufficient people with the right characteristics to take on the leadership-role in leadership-roles. Being able to positively identify these people is the topic of the next two sections of this article.
  • Create, sustain and communicate — Here we arrive at the “action” of leading, the process (i.e. creating the right conditions) to be set in motion. The leadership–role is about creating, sustaining and communicating a culture (within a team, project, organisation, whatever) which provides the conditions required to achieve the desired outcome against minimal risk. If the culture providing the conditions doesn’t exist, it is to be created. Once created it is to be sustained. At all times the leadership-role is to communicate this culture.

The implicit statement this definition makes is that those who take on the leadership-role must care. The one who takes on the leadership-role is to achieve a desired outcome for someone or something else (i.e. the organisational unit). This person is to create, sustain and communicate the required conditions for others. In the end, it is the collective behaviour and attitude of all those who take on the leadership-roles in an organisation that determines how it goes about achieving desired outcomes, and how the organisation relates to its employees, its customers and its environment (see [63]).

In the next section it will be shown that to be able to take on the leadership-role successfully requires a single trait (or ‘ability’ or ‘characteristic’). Whether someone possesses this trait, and if so to what degree, cannot be measured, but it can be easily observed. In other words, not everybody can take on the leadership-role, but it is easy to identify those who can.

Before identifying this one essential trait, a quick couple of leadership related Q&A (as found in literature) in support of the idea that being able to identify those who are most likely to be successful at taking up the leadership-role — regardless of the position in the hierarchy — will have an impact on the organisation’s performance:

  • Does it actually matter who the organisation’s leader (the CEO or boss) is? The answer is yes [20-22].
  • Is the leader solely responsible for the success of the company? The answer is no, management also plays an important role [23].
  • Does the leadership style have an impact on how management performs? Yes it does [24].
  • Has research identified an overriding characteristic of what makes a good leader? No it hasn’t, it has merely identified that the impact of (the style of) leadership depends on the circumstances the organisation finds itself in (e.g. type of organisation, type of industry, geographical location) [25-27].

This last outcome seems to justify the statement that the leaders who are best able to adjust to the circumstances, or who may even be able to modify these circumstances, have a better chance of making important contributions to the organisation’s performance (see also [15]). Which brings us to the next section. If we would like to identify the people who are best able to take on the leadership-role, what trait should we be looking for?

For the rest of the article (PDF), click [here].

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