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Apr 28, 2014

Leadership: A team sport

Learning leadership is synonymous with learning team skills

By Dave Crisp

Books can be tremendously helpful, but we are constantly exposed to the literature of "the great leader and how they did it" in all sorts of publications. Successful leaders themselves write enough books for a medium sized town library on the subject of their own success.

Tempting... but are they useful? As stories perhaps, but not so much for pinning down the actual elements of leadership. Each situation is unique and lessons aren’t always as broadly transferable except a generalities. At times I wonder how much more I can read of this genre and whether any more is worthwhile or it’s all a rehash of the same stuff.

Fortunately, from time to time a few stand out and they form a pattern. Most recently The Admirals by historian Walter Borneman. By choosing to write about quite a few leaders — in this case, the president and military leaders who won the Pacific battles in the Second World War — you get a perspective of very different types and styles that succeeded despite their flaws. A key benefit of writing about multiple leaders engaged in the same endeavour is the author can compare and contrast and not get bogged down in pure awe over a single individual. That way you get to see variations that work better (or not so well) and the circumstances that most likely led to each fitting or not.

In The Admiral we see the politician juggle less than satisfactory necessities to keep the public happy; versus the coach-leader who was revered by nearly everyone and clearly developed a great many fine leaders under him; versus the tyrannical martinet, whose temper exploded in devastating rants at subordinates and bosses alike, yet was tolerated (barely, but tolerated nonetheless) for his brilliant thinking and obvious commitment.

And more – the quiet introvert who thought his way to victories, but never rose as high as the bombastic footballer and socializer who knew how to promote his successes while surviving stupid mistakes that killed hundreds of his staff needlessly. The waffling egotists, the struggling bit players — they’re all here, all so familiar to anyone who’s paid attention to leaders around them in various jobs — all with strengths and weaknesses that are thrilling or chilling in the face of loss of life and momentous world-shaking struggles.

Borneman does a very good job of pointing out the styles and possible origins, but of course it’s impossible to totally understand where personality comes from. What we see clearly is that every leader has spots where they can excel and others where they are second-guessed by armchair quarterbacks after the events are over. Can we say for sure that one or two types are distinctly superior? It's a hard question. We can certainly say which ones we’d have preferred to work for. Today that might be the core issue. If engaging staff is as critical as we’re coming to believe, for innovation, productivity and retention, we should at least pay some attention to the coach-style that so obviously engages more people. But it also appears that each style finds people who thrive under it, no matter how chafing it seems overall.

This reminded me of another story, one of more recent written about Abraham Lincoln — Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Here’s a tale of leaders in the political stream, replete with the miserable compromising and difficult choices, but a situation in which one man skillfully blended his friends and enemies into a winning team, with mistakes, strengths and weaknesses as well as the infighting between rivals for top political offices, all playing major roles.

War leadership certainly makes for riveting reading, not only because of the lives and futures of nations hanging in the balance, but because so much analysis gets done it is more likely to produce a work that weighs different styles of leadership so much more than in books about CEOs that mostly fail to mention any among the teams of strong-willed individuals under them.

One of the best early studies of leadership examined why certain Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons in the Second World War were much more successful. It looked to show that democratic (coach-style) leaders were better than authoritarians (Hitler-style). In the end, the answer was more complex — the best were led by pairs in which one was a coach or padre-style and one a hard driving task master who demanded everyone fly right. Which was the top-most of the pair didn’t matter, but that particular pairing of styles did.

As one oft-mentioned example, it is said Michael Eisner of Disney was exceedingly successful in the years when he had a great CFO to pair with, a man who was unfortunately killed in a helicopter crash, following which Eisner winged off on tangents that would (and did) make everyone’s hair stand on end for frightful disasters.

What seems clear from all these is that whatever their styles, the best leaders keep on learning and gather around them — or at least tolerate and respect, but most definitely listen to — one or more people who stand up to them, raise challenging issues and provide very different points of view. The fools we’d rather not work with under any circumstances are those who will never be shaken from the belief they’re right, never listen and are concerned only about themselves and especially their egos.

I generally argue that coach-style leaders bring much of this to their work naturally — listening, adapting, problem-solving with teams — and so are more likely to succeed overall. What these books paint is more the reality that every leadership situation will have multiple types in play, probably unavoidably, and that this is most likely a good thing, that too many of the same style leader will be potentially just as bad at excluding novel viewpoints due to cozy group thinking as a single, tyrannical leader who never listens to any at all.

It seems likely that, in our lifetimes at least, we’ll have to learn the value of tolerating leaders whose styles grate, through recognition that we are all flawed and that all of us are better together than just one person or one type working alone.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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