How much power can one leader have?

What makes a great leader? When a business is successful, is it because of excellent leadership? Likewise, when a business fails, is the CEO to blame?

Figureheads of big businesses are often the ones we praise or blame. They are after all, the face and voice of the company in the public eye. I’m sure you can think of a recent example where a company faced particular hardships and the CEO resigned soon after, signalling fault with his or her leadership. As if in doing so, is it validating this idea that the leader holds all the power to let the business sink or swim. There is this idea in this situation, that the company can move on with a new and better ‘great leader’ and achieve much greater success. Often though, when things go wrong, it is a case of a leader just being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. When a company reaches heights of success, we also tend to see the leader as the ‘hero’. Do we put too much onus on leadership as the single biggest factor governing the success or failure of a company?  

It’s never really as simple as boiling success and failure down to one person. There are so many contributing factors at play; the individual departments within an organisation and how effective they are, the threats and opportunities in the market and how they impact the business at the time, how consumers feel about the product and brand for reasons out of control of the business etc.

Over the last couple of decades, ‘leadership’ has become an industry in itself. But it’s our fascination with leadership and our dependence on it for business success or failure that has put far too much expectation on the capabilities of one or a few. We need to shift our focus on the collective sum of all parts, and de-active the power attributed to the leader of a company. 

This is the theory explored in a recent article in the Financial Times written by ‘Unchartered; How to Navigate the Future’ author, Margaret Heffernan. I greatly recommended it as it so perfectly explores the concept that we put too much emphasis on leadership and not enough on all the collective factors when it comes to business success.

In the article, Heffernan so eloquently puts it; “Our lust for heroes and for a leadership formula fuels a huge industry. What it doesn’t seem to do is produce better leaders. It might even make everything worse. Placing too great a weight of expectation on the idea of leadership infantilises us all. It allows too many people to abdicate, waiting for a lead. It causes many to take their success as evidence that they are special, even infallible. In oversimplifying what is complex, and trying to nail down what is fluid, we chase chimeras when we could be looking in the mirror and asking: what can I do better today?” 

Can you think of an example where too much faith is put into leadership effectively watering down the belief employees have in themselves? Often, due to leadership style and company culture, employees are not empowered to make big decisions and instead wait for leadership to tell them how to do things, when really they are the ones with the best ideas on how to do things better. Good leadership needs to be a lot more facilitative in the role it plays if we want a business to be successful and innovative at all it’s levels. We need to shift the focus from leaders being the heroes and normalise flatter hierarchies where they take on the role of supporter and facilitator. 

Heffernan uses a great example; “A few Conservatives still venerate Boris Johnson’s leadership, claiming that it was he who won a landslide for their party. But did he win that election — or did Jeremy Corbyn lose it for him? He won the Brexit referendum by only a tiny margin, so his record of national electoral leadership is thin. As we can’t do the controlled experiment and rerun 2019 without him, we will never know whether it was his specific brand of leadership that made the difference, or something else. Yet simplistic narratives are enduringly attractive, and it is these that seduce us into the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy — that is believing that when actions precede a major event it means they have caused it. If this is a frequent problem in politics, it is ubiquitous in business.” 

The idea that we have ‘simplistic narratives’ when it comes to attributing success or failure to a person’s leadership capabilities alone, does seem ludicrous knowing what we do about how complex situations play out. We live in a complex world. There is a lot to be said for re-evaluating how we approach ‘leadership’ and reassessing the power leaders can really have. 

Could your leadership team benefit from one of my tailored workshops? Please get in touch today . I’d love to help!

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