Effective Leadership Just Got Personal by James Ashton
THAT this book feels more like a coaching session than a
treatise on leadership is most probably a function of the author having spent a
large part of his career coaching executives.
The tone is personal and thoughtful, and singularly lacking
in the “see how I did it and try and imitate me” that plagues so many
accessible books on leadership.
In his Harvard Business Review article in 1977, entitled
Managers and Leaders: Are they different?, Abraham Zaleznik argued for the
difference. Some 30 years later, he did an about-turn and admitted that leaders
must manage and managers must lead.
Author James Ashton takes as his starting point that “leader
and manager… aren’t different people; they are complementary parts of every
leader or manager’s job”.
Too often we confuse leading with being the CEO or
president, when in fact almost all leaders or managers are far less high
profile and found in every level of every organisation. The oddity is that
while many aspire to “to become a fireman or a policeman or a millionaire”,
rare is the person who aspires to being the assistant manager of an information
processing team - yet that is what most managers become.
Many of the names we use to describe the workplace suggest
the coming together to make things happen: the company, the partnership, the
corporation and the society. Leading in a company must involve assisting people
to be able to be successful so that the organisation can be successful.
Leadership, Ashton explains, “is the function that enables
ordinary people to show their strengths in ways that add immense value”.
Ask any South African to name a great South African leader
and former president Nelson Mandela’s name will surely be on the list. In
retrospect, was his leadership a “success”? The answer depends on what you are
His leadership on issues such as immigration, unemployment
and many issues was decidedly unspectacular. His leadership in uniting a
fractured nation and putting the country on the world stage for the right
reasons was spectacular. A leader is measured in terms of his ability to meet
the expectations of various groups of significant others, and herein lies the
challenge - expectations change without notice and rapidly.
As such, a key factor in being an effective leader is
understanding what the most significant stakeholders expect in order to deliver
on those expectations. Many a one-time company highflyer has fallen from grace
not though a loss of competence, but because of misreading his or her
Ashton identifies the building blocks of a leader’s
performance as ability and the degree to which the person is motivated to
perform as a leader.
The transformational school of leadership which was very
popular in the last part of last of the 20th century suggested that leaders did
not have to be knowledgeable in the work their teams did, but rather to be
competent in dealing with the people who were knowledgeable.
Ashton rightly rejects this approach by asserting that while
a leader does not have to be the unit’s expert - in fact, it is better if he
isn't - he is required to understand the pragmatics of the work the unit does.
Many a manager and leader is less interested in the
difficult activity of leading a group of people than in the status of being the
leader. Leaders must desire to be leaders or they will not succeed. This is a
thought provoker that should not be quickly glossed over. Do you really desire
to lead others?
As to the correct style of leading - having a strong task
focus or a strong people focus, leading change or executing - there isn’t one.
The context will determine what is required and the leader’s ability to adapt
to the needs of the day will determine his success.
One of the leadership styles that is given significant
attention is what Ashton calls the Shepherd leader, and what others call the
Servant leader. Too many see this as the kindly people-centred person, strong
on respect, love and care.
Ashton interviewed a modern-day shepherd in the foothills of
Lesotho and questioned him about his work. The shepherd explained that he needs
an intimate knowledge of each of his hundreds of sheep. He needs to know how
they will respond and what triggers particular behaviours, which of his sheep
prefers to lead and which to follow, which sheep will panic and which won’t.
His primary task is to keep his flock safe and together. But
he also needs to force them into the dip where the liquid will burn their eyes
and get into their noses and mouths and scare them. He needs to do this to know
that his sheep will be safe from parasites and disease.
Much about leading people is fuzzy, grey or ambiguous. What
is not ambiguous is that people join organisations, but leave because of bad
managers. “For most employees, their emotional experience of the organisation
is their experience of you as their leader.”
Since almost everyone will be a leader at some moment in
their lives, whether at work, home or socially, leadership needs to be
understood. Ashton concludes his book with a set of seven personal leadership
questions that deserve the attention of all leaders who want to up their game
for the benefit of those they lead and the organisations they serve.
Readability: Light --+-- Serious
Insights: High -+---- Low
Practical: High -+--- Low
* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on
leadership and strategy.