Leadership isn’t an individual act; it’s an ensemble performance

Leadership isn’t an individual act; it’s an ensemble performance

Leaders can only participate if others are being led, so why do most business schools cling to notions of individualism?

Christopher Mowles

Guardian Professional, Monday 17 March 2014 17.08 GMT

Leadership arises in an ensemble performance, writes Christopher Mowles, leaders can only lead in participation with others being led. Photograph: Shamukov Ruslan/ Shamukov Ruslan/ITAR-TASS Photo/Corbis

Leaders may be in charge but they are not always in control. Those leading complex organisations need a high tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity; the capacity for reflexivity, enabling them to notice how they and others are being caught up in the game of organisational life; the ability to recognise patterns of activity between them and their colleagues and more broadly in the organisation; and political savvy as well as knowing how to negotiate, persuade and form alliances.

This is a highly social understanding of leadership which turns on the idea that leading arises in an ensemble performance. Leaders can only lead in participation with others being led. This raises the question about what kind of education or development is needed to produce leaders better able to cope in today’s highly complex environments.

Many business schools, training institutions and consultancies offer educational or development programmes which still cleave to the highly individualised understanding of leadership. This isn’t surprising because, to an extent, that’s what people expect.

The idea of the heroic leader is widespread and co-created, and is a phenomenon to which many business schools feel the need to respond. Orthodox courses usually place great emphasis on the transformational or visionary qualities of individual leaders, partly in response to popular expectations – discussions about leadership on MBA courses where I teach will always eventually call on Steve Jobs or Richard Branson as examples to follow. What would Steve or Richard do?

Or there is an assumption that a leader can adopt a particular leadership style to fit the circumstances in which they find themselves, which is consistent with and amplified by the popular interest in personal make-overs. This way of thinking immediately puts the leader in control of the project of the self and how a person can present to other people, instead of assuming that leaders are as much acted upon as acting; the context defines them as much as they define the context. Leaders may have little choice over which leadership style to adopt since, as Mike Tyson once observed, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Leadership programmes adopting a more social orientation, such as the ones I have been involved in at the University of Hertfordshire and recently in the NHS, are run experientially and encourage discussion about the kinds of problems and dilemmas that people are actually experiencing at work.

This takes the focus away from idealised models of what they should be doing, and concentrates instead on what they are already doing. The idea is to make their current practice more visible to them in order for them to gain a bit more awareness of the game they are caught up in, and so create the possibility of gaining more control.

So what do we find ourselves talking about on these programmes? Participants often develop the ability to notice and talk about power and how it is exercised. Our starting point is that power is neither good nor bad, and it can be both. Organisational life would be impossible unless leaders and managers exercised power. So how are they doing so, and to what end, and how do others respond? Who’s in and who’s out, and why?

Secondly, we notice how everyday organisational life provokes strong feelings in us, and in our colleagues. Affect is not something to cover over, as the opposite of professionalism, but can be a helpful guide to what is going on for us, and for other people. Learning to be more detached about our involvement can be the start of tolerating uncertainty.

And finally, in having to tell our stories we have to form them, putting a shape to what’s going on for us that we might not yet have made sense of until we begin to say it out loud. When we are obliged to give an account to other people we have to structure experience which may have seemed confused to us before. In articulating this we can then notice the degree to which our experience resonates with other people’s: patterns begin to emerge about what’s going on in our organisations as a result of our talking about it.

In this kind of programme leading is considered to be in good part about noticing, thinking, feeling and above all talking about what we are noticing, thinking and feeling. The more confidently we can do this ourselves, the more we might be helpful to others.

Chris Mowles is professor of complexity and management atHertfordshire Business School. He is director of the doctor of management programme and author of Rethinking Management: Radical Insights from the Complexity Sciences


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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