Leadership and Chaos
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you will help them to become what they are capable of being.” –– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There are many theories that attempt to account for leadership excellence. The opening quote is, perhaps, the most widely accepted foundation of leadership excellence. If one expands beyond excellence to leadership more generally, a close examination of the various theoretical constructs discloses that they are consistently developed either from the perspective of the leader or from that of those who follow.
If developed from the perspective of the leader, the theory emphasizes the traits and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses of the leader. Leadership excellence is primarily a product of leaders who exhibit more of the desired traits and characteristics and avoid the less desirable traits and characteristics.
If developed from the perspective of those who follow, the theory emphasizes leadership strategies and techniques that encourage and maximize the strengths and individual talents of those who follow. Leadership excellence is primarily a product of leaders who are able to fully actualize the excellence potentials and capacities of those who follow.
Careful attention to these apparently opposing perspectives quickly reveals that they are not separate perspectives. Rather, the second is merely an extension of the first. Excellence leaders are leaders who exhibit traits and characteristics that motivate those who follow to fully participate in and contribute to the shared enterprise.
Leadership behavior then combines with associated thought processes that support and focus the desired perspective. For leaders who believe that leadership excellence primarily depends on personal traits and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, thinking focuses on how to personally and more specifically manifest those traits and characteristics thought to be associated with leadership excellence.
How do leaders behave in various situations? How do they interact with those who follow? How do they approach and handle problems and challenges? What traits and actions differentiate leaders from non–leaders?
A commitment to leadership excellence is, then, a commitment to thinking about and answering these and similar questions. Excellence leaders ask, successfully answer, and in turn, implement the resulting directives implicit in the answers.
For leaders who believe that leadership excellence primarily depends on strategies and techniques that encourage and maximize the strengths and individual talents of those who follow, thinking focuses on how to encourage those who follow to personally and more specifically manifest the behavior thought to be most clearly associated with the success of the enterprise.
How does a leader motivate those who follow to accept and actively pursue the articulated mission of the enterprise? What needs to happen in order to assure that those who follow commit their full energy and capacity to the success of the enterprise? What techniques and strategies are necessary to maximize the contribution of each follower in relation to his (or her) individual skills and talents? What environmental and situational factors need to be manipulated to minimize avoidable loss of energy, skill, and follower focus and to maximize the actualization of the productive potential of those who follow?
Again, a commitment to leadership excellence is a commitment to thinking about and answering these and similar questions. Excellence leaders ask, successfully answer, and in turn, implement the resulting directives implicit in the answers.
On the one hand, the answers and associated directives are in terms of definable traits and characteristics of the leader. On the other hand, the answers and directives are in terms of factors and conditions related to the performance of the followers and associated strategies and techniques needed to optimize those factors and conditions.
Increasing leadership excellence is, thus, thought to depend either on improving the performance of the leader or on increasing the participation and commitment of the followers. Although both approaches are separately productive, leadership theory has moved to combine the approaches. Current theory posits that leadership excellence is best achieved when the leader concentrates on maximizing personal leadership traits and characteristics while concurrently implementing strategies and techniques to increase the participation and commitment of followers.
Considering this dichotomous understanding of leadership excellence as it applies to decision–making is instructive. How are decisions made and who makes them? At one extreme, decision–making is autocratic. The leader has absolute authority and makes all decisions. He (or she) may ask others for advice, information, and suggestions, giving the impression of participation. Nonetheless, the leader decides. The quality of decisions thus depends exclusively on the judgment of the leader.
The opposite extreme is not consensus or some other type of group decision–making, as one might at first think. Rather, the opposite extreme is chaos. All participants in the enterprise act on their individual judgment and initiative. Even if each participant makes all decisions from the perspective of the perceived best interest of the enterprise, and they likely will not, the resulting chaos is, at a minimum, counterproductive.
If one looks at decision–making with autocracy at one extreme and chaos at the other, leadership excellence falls within a fairly narrow range between the extremes. If the leader moves too far toward autocracy, psychological theory suggests that the followers will become alienated and functionally constricted. Their performance will be less productive than it might otherwise be. Alternatively, if the leader moves too far toward chaos, sociological theory suggests that the enterprise will become fragmented and increasingly dysfunctional.
Defining the excellence limits within the decision–making range is certainly open to debate and disagreement. Even so, the reality of the range is obvious and the importance of leaders thoughtfully functioning within the range is clear. Excellence leaders do not move outside the range toward either extreme.
One could debate the relative benefits of intentionally shifting leadership behavior toward one end of the excellence range or the other. For example, is it better for the leader to be more autocratic or less autocratic? Is it better for the leader to defer more to the judgment of the followers or for him (or her) to defer less to the followers? Should the leader delegate more decision–making responsibility to the followers or less?
The debatable aspects here not withstanding, excellence leaders maintain their leadership behavior within a relatively narrow range of actions and approaches. Exactly where they function within the acceptable range likely depends on the individual leader’s personality, individual strengths and skills, personal preferences, specific circumstances and conditions, and on a mix of other factors. The reality is that the effectiveness of the leader is unrelated to where his (or her) functioning falls on the excellence range so long as the leader does not move outside that narrow range.
Just as there is a fairly narrow excellence range with respect to decision–making, there are acceptable excellence ranges for other aspects of leadership functioning.
For example, strategic planning for the enterprise needs to proceed within fairly narrow limits. At one extreme, planning can be so conservative that there is no real change or growth over time. Alternatively, planning can be so unconstrained that change becomes non–sustainable and chaotic. The success of the enterprise depends on the capacity of the leader to pursue strategic planning within those excellence limits, although that success likely does not depend on the leader’s position within the excellence range.
Competent leaders understand and function within the multiple excellence ranges related to the success of the enterprise. Their competence level is not related to where they function on any specific excellence range. Rather, it is derived from their demonstrated ability to continuously maintain their behavior and functioning within acceptable limits on all of the relevant excellence ranges concurrently.
If leaders are judged in terms of current theoretical constructs, most people in positions of leadership are very successful. The reality is that, for the most part, leaders do stay within the excellence ranges associated with the enterprises they lead. Their styles and approaches vary significantly but nonetheless only vary within fairly narrow ranges. The apparent variety is mostly a product of the multiple excellence ranges, individual variations within and among the ranges, and the personalities and individuality of the leaders.