The Quest

How can responsible citizens and democratic societies assess objectively the performance of their leadership and respond accordingly? How can we achieve sustainable competitive advantage in leadership supply? What if we had a magic wand to mass produce best-in-class leaders? If successful, what impact would this have on our organizations and communities?

This post uses analogy and inferences from the field of physics to provide practical insights into the the nature of the social phenomenon of leadership and its psychological dynamics.

Introducing The Leadership Body Of Knowledge (LBOK)

The LBOK consists of (4) modules that, combined, make a comprehensive leadership body of knowledge that takes the concept of leadership from the subjectivity of arts to the objectivity of applied science making it measurable and teachable.

  1. A theory that provides a working definition of leadership – This is the fundamental premise upon which the entire model and ensuing practice is predicated. Important to provide a reference point to return to in order to rethink the underlying premise should the evidence of reality conflicts with the predicted outcomes.
  2. The Leadership-Metrics, a seven-dimension scale to enable the impartial evaluation and measurement of leadership performance. Useful to forming fact-based opinion on the leadership performance or potential of an individual or community.
  3. The Leadership-Life-cycle, a three-phase process to provide a roadmap of leadership activities and associated skills. Essential to enable the systematic practice and teaching of the theory.
  4. And finally, the Leadership Code of Practice, a body of universal benchmarks to set best-practice guidelines and standards.

What is Wrong With Current Leadership Models?

Modern theories of leadership are as utterly flawed as Aristotle’s theory of a geocentric universe (the premise that earth is stationery at the center of the universe, and all planets revolved around it).

Some hold that people are born either leaders or followers, hence affirming the elitist view of leadership responsible for excluding the rank and file and squandering their potential. This is not true! Just like the atom carries positive protons and negative electrons, humans too are endowed with the dual genes of leadership and followership.

Some place leaders at the summit or, at best, at the forefront of their organizations, hence contributing to the hierarchical and rigid structure of a leadership that excludes those who are below or behind in the ranks. Not right! The configuration of the natural world around us is spherical in shape where objects are simultaneously orbiting other objects, while being themselves the center of a whole other universe of activities.

Some associate a know-it-all, “save the world” connotation with the notion of leadership, promoting an image of the infallible and super natural leader. Can’t be further from the truth! History is rife with numerous narratives of corrupt leadership.

And all of them fail to give a succinct and precise working definition of leadership; rather, they tend to provide descriptions of the typical behaviors and traits which we associate with the social phenomenon of leadership. Not good enough!

The absence of a working definition is responsible for all those misconceptions which have caused practice to derail (how we perform the work of leadership; how we assess it and, celebrate it or denounce it; who we train and how), and by implication, is largely responsible for the current cognitive and structural shackles that compromise our ability to promote the collective leadership capacity and accountability of our organizations and societies.

Module (1) – The Theory: What is Leadership?

Isaac Newton was able to develop accurate enough understanding of the abstract concept of gravity and the laws of physics underlying it by observing its effect on objects. We too can use analogy and inferences from the field of physics to develop a basic understanding of the nature of leadership and its psychological dynamics based on its output; that is change. Hence, we could posit the following simple working definition:

“Leadership is the Act of Effecting Change”.

The link between leadership and change has been long established in the writings of many thought leaders, with particular emphasis on the doing/work of leadership. To cite just a couple of examples, John P. Kotter, in a 1990 HBR article titled “What Leaders Really Do”, stated: “what leaders really do is prepare organizations for change and help them cope as they struggle through it”. Also in a 1997 HBR article titled “The Work of Leadership”, Heifetz and Laurie framed leadership as the challenge of adapting with change. So, is this just old wine in a new bottle?

The difference in this treatment is that it uses the principles of physics to reflect on the inner psychological workings of leadership, and to provide insights that can help improve our understanding of the subject and correct misconceptions.

Characteristics of Leadership

  1. Leadership is intrinsic to all mankind – going from the postulate that leadership is the act of effecting change, and since every person has the capacity to induce some sort of change, small or large, we can infer that the default setting of all humankind is that we are all endowed with the capacity to lead.
  2. Leadership and followership are mutually inclusive – So, if we are all born leaders, who will follow? Just like the atom, we simultaneously carry (somewhere in our genetic composition) the positively-charged protons of leadership and the negatively-charged electrons of followership. Accordingly, we have the natural disposition to perform both leadership (attracting others to our own sphere), and followership (joining the spheres of others).
  3. The organizational structure of leadership – From the largest objects in the heavens to the smallest subatomic particles, it appears that the world around us (at the celestial level) and within us (at the atomic level) is organized in a semi-spherical manner where each individual object makes the center of its own sphere, and at the same time it is part of a larger universe. By the same token, an individual supervising a team would be simultaneously engaged in leadership towards their team (exerting attraction force towards them), and followership vis-a-vis her/his next level within the larger organizational cloud.
  4. Leadership starts from within: For an atom to begin transmitting energy ( releasing electrically charged electrons) it must first become ionized; that is, to reach an excited state where its energy level becomes higher than its “ground State”. Similarly, in order to begin “energizing” others, we must first become “ionized” as to overcome our own inertia and break free from our comfort zone.
  5. Leadership Capacity. Depending on their atomic profile (atomic weight and electronic structure), elements respond differently to various types of stimuli. Similarly, Subjected to different environments and stimuli, we exhibit quite different patterns of leadership and followership reactivity with different degrees of intensity. This perhaps explains why a person considered an introvert in a business setting (inert in chemical terms), might be leading an “atomic” lifestyle outside work. And why someone who may be considered a role model of business leadership, might respond very poorly to stimuli in social settings.
  6. Good and Bad Leadership: Change can produce positive outcome (reform), negative outcome (corruption) or a mixture of both. On the leadership spectrum, at the utmost right, there is leadership that results in absolute reform. For example, achieving an economic goal in a way that promotes the socioeconomic prosperity of all stakeholders (see Above and Beyond Justice). In contrast, at the utmost left, there is leadership that eventually brings about absolute corruption. The military intervention in Iraq, for one, is a case in point. So, there is bright and black leadership and there are many shades of grey in between. Professor Barbara Kellerman made the observation of bad leadership in a 2004 HBR article titled “Warts and All”. Ironically, all leadership claim, and truly believe, that they stand on the right side. Hitler and all too many leaders who came before and after him did. While everyone would invariably agree that all forms of corrupting leadership must be resisted and counteracted, all too often the challenge rests in figuring out in foresight rather than in hindsight which is the right side to take! And to make things even more complex, what could begin as an authentic and true cause, could well stray the path and turn bad or even ugly, which poses an additional burden on the leadership community to diligently monitor and stay the course.
  7. Dynamics of leadership: Physics tell us that in order to change the position of an object, a force greater than its inertia must be applied on it. Similarly to change any social state of affairs, a greater energy than the status quo must be exerted upon it. The status quo is a function of the degree by which the established patterns of behavior are entrenched and pervasive within the members of the community. The higher it is, the larger is the required force i.e. effort to change it.
  8. Sustainability of leadership: Again, the rules of physics inform us that in order to maintain the motion of an object, a continuous force greater than the forces of resistance must be sustained. Similarly, in order to complete the transformation and then maintain the new order, whether social, economic or political, a continuous momentum must be sustained over time. This poses two important challenges: first, the leader needs a source of “renewable energy” to be able to keep performing at a sustained level throughout their tenure; and secondly, she/he must ensure the sustainability of momentum through leadership succession. In other words, we must learn when and how to pass the torch.
  9. Leadership and resistance: The laws of physics recognize that every action produces a reaction equal in magnitude, in the opposite direction – resistance. Similarly, every change must provoke resistance. Ultimately, the success or failure of the change movement, which as previously stated does not necessarily equate to virtue, will boil down to the level of sustained energy that every side will bring to bear.
  10. Substance in physics is analogous to society in social science. All substance are made of molecules that consist of two or more atoms joining together. By analogy, we can think of society as “social molecules” consisting of two or more people bound together. Marriage for instance, as a form of social organization, could be a useful depiction of the “social molecule”, especially that like the atoms in a molecular string are bound together through electrochemical forces, the “chemistry” of love is the bond that keeps this social structure together. This insight could be useful to our understanding because leadership involves creating, decoupling and reorganizing social configurations, and by examining how substance generate and lose form, we could glean useful insights into the dynamics that govern social groups.

Who’s a better leader, Akio Morita of Sony or Jack Welch of GE?…… In the next post, I present The Leadership-Metrics, a seven-dimension scale to enable the objective and impartial evaluation of leadership performance in all types of contexts – business, political and social.

So, stay tuned!

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