The Right Leader?
Editor | On 17, May 2018
A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end… but not necessarily in that order.
– Jean-Luc Godard (Film Director)
Who makes the best leader?
If you had to choose between JFK, Jack Welch, Sir Richard Branson or Woody Allen, which one would be the best leader for your organisation? Your latest innovation project?
It depends, right?
There is no such thing as ‘the best’ leader. Ask Jack Welch to run Virgin, or Woody Allen to run the United States, or Sir Richard to make a movie, and I don’t think it would take too long to work out that things wouldn’t go well. Leadership, in other words, is context specific.
The question is how does context affect the choice of the right leader?
What is it about Woody Allen that makes every actor on the planet want to feature in one of his films… for almost no fee? What is it about Sir Richard Branson that makes him the most likely person to make ‘space tourism’ a reality?
The dependency seems to distill down to two critical factors: do we know what we’re doing? And do we know how we’re going to do it?
Which sounds like an invitation to construct another 2×2 matrix. Maybe one that looks something like this:
Figure 1: The Leadership How/What Matrix
Regarding the ‘how’ dimension, the two main scenarios are we either know how we’re going to do what we’re about to do, or we don’t. Woody Allen, or any film director with any experience, knows precisely the mechanics of how to make a film, whereas, when President Kennedy announced the intention to ‘put a man on the moon before the end of the decade’, he had absolutely no idea how to do it.
From the ‘what’ perspective, however, he knew exactly what he was asking for. Again there are two basic ‘what’ scenarios: we either, like Kennedy, know precisely what we’re trying to achieve, or we don’t. Putting Neil Armstrong on the Moon is a very clear goal. Whereas, ‘make an interesting film’, or, to take a classic Branson example, ‘space tourism’, is anything but precise or clear.
Brought together the two ‘how’ possibilities and the two ‘what’ possibilities give us four different types of leadership context:
‘Paint By Numbers’ – we know what needs to be achieved, and how we’re going to do it. This is Jack Welch territory. It takes us to the heart of ‘Operational Excellence’ and optimization of existing systems and protocols. It is, in so many words, the world of SixSigma and clear goals and objectives (‘the lowest rank 10% of managers will be fired’).
‘Movie Director’ – we know how to get things done, but we don’t know what we’re going to do yet. Which in turn means a need to recruit the right people at the right time (‘casting is 65% of directing’ – John Frankenheimer), creating the right atmosphere and then letting people get on with things in their own way. Woody Allen is (was?) particularly good, for example, at having his actors improvise a large proportion of their lines, but also knows that everything has to be in the can by a certain date and within a clear budget.
‘Quest’ – the ‘Man on the Moon’ scenario in which we know what needs to be achieved, but don’t yet know how it will be done. Which requires a charismatic leader with sabre-rattling, ‘follow-me, follow-me’ traits. Think JFK. Think Steve Jobs and ‘a thousand songs in my pocket’.
‘Fog’ – the ‘we don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t know how to do it either’ scenario. The pioneering innovation project in which the only ‘knowns’ are a vague sense of overall direction… that, in all likelihood, will evolve into something quite different later on as the exploration of possibilities meanders around, often apparently without aim. The archetypal ‘fuzzy-front-end’ project in which leaders have to possess an extraordinary capacity to hold as many contradicting ideas and directions as possible, incubate them, and have the patience to know that the ‘right’ directions will eventually emerge, until, ‘space tourism’ evolves into Virgin Galactic.
So much for the four different leadership scenarios. What kinds of leader does each one require? An undoubtedly tricky (‘fog’-like?) question to try and answer, but one that eventually condenses down to another 2×2 matrix-worth of characteristics: starters and finishers; dominators and collaborators:
Figure 2: The Leadership How/What Matrix & Critical Leadership Characteristics
Hmm. I think I can feel a new PanSensic tool coming along…