Leadership beyond tools, tactics and techniques

It seems that in the West we are obsessed with leadership, to the point that it’s considered a good idea to demonstrate it in our CVs and many job descriptions will either require or at least refer to them. Our annual performance objectives have a section on developing leadership skills and we get assessed on our leadership abilities (albeit poorly defined). Then there is no shortage of leadership profiles (perhaps reflecting so many styles and shades of leadership). I wonder how much those profiles assume we have faults – clearly incongruent with heroic leadership – that we need to get it right.

Reflecting on Reflections of Marcus Aurelius, as well as what I recently learned about other leaders of the Roman Empire, points to something that’s missing in our modern leadership development programmes and publications. Pick up most books on modern leadership development and they are largely rooted in teaching tactics, tools and techniques. They certainly have a place, but generally constrained in themselves as they are means not substance. Just like tools enable a car mechanic to do a job in fixing the car, they have no value in themselves unless the mechanic knows which ones to use and how. Perhaps in response to immediate problems and pressures leadership workshops and writings seek to impart (or assumed to), what passes on as, pearls of wisdom.

Unfortunately, despite its benefits much of what passes as leadership development stuff seems fairly superficial and short-lived. It’s probably better than nothing, but certainly not everything. Psychologists refer to something called ‘what you see is what you get’ and if we see leadership development as merely, or mainly, composed of tactics, tools, and techniques, then are we really developing leaders? The challenge appears to be that by limiting ourselves to those we ignore depth and permanence necessary in mature leadership. It seems to me that depth is characterised by at least two things: character and wisdom. Unfortunately I have not seen those being mentioned often.

Marcus Aurelius starts his book with description of character of the people who influenced him, this is no small feat as he traces the origins of what shaped him as a leader and was central to his practice as commander of probably the greatest army of his time. Depth of character is about who we are, though not in the sense of personality traits and not even strengths from positive psychology. Probably, and possibly oversimplified, it is who we truly are when stripped of masks, in times of crisis or as Os Guinness refers to it as “when no one sees”. Yet much of our leadership development implicitly seems to be about putting masks and being somebody we are not.

Wisdom too reflects who we are, but in a different way. My understanding of wisdom is rather limited, but I see it as the choices we make in life, particularly around relating and acting in different contexts and circumstances (in both private and public) that is congruent with good life and some might say in harmony with others. I am told there is an African saying that when an old man dies it is a tragedy, but not necessarily when the young do. The older people have wisdom that the village has rent in it, therefore the loss of those is a loss to the village.

It seems that to lead others we need to look beyond tactics, tools and techniques. Possibly even frame those in light of character and wisdom. I might be proven wrong, but something tells me that character and wisdom create depth and meaning in the way charisma and confidence do not (though I noticed the latter two get mentioned first and most often when people are asked what leadership is about). I do not know if we can fake character and wisdom and they are certainly not quick to develop as we would like in today’s corporate environment (where expectations placed on us in fact can contradict good character and wisdom).

But life is a long game, and the question it raises to me what kind of leader am I becoming over the long-term (beyond immediate pressures and aspirations)? Does the society, community and/or organisation have a rent in what I am? Developing character and wisdom takes time, but like an expensive cheese or wine it adds more complex flavours as it matures with time. Put a price on that kind of leadership development.


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