Leadership – Is Nelson As An Admiral Better than A Fleet of Nelsons As Sailors

Along with our School of Medicine senior management team, I attended an excellent symposium by Professor Erwin Schwella from Stellenbosch University on leadership skills this week as part of a Leadership course we have developed. On the same day I received a letter from a University I had previously worked at asking why I had left, presumably as part of the routine human resources practice of that University, and my answer to them was that I had left because of what I perceived was poor leadership at the University in question that had created a negative and hostile work environment, where creativity had become difficult to translate into academic output as a result of the leadership-generated negative environmental milieu, amongst other reasons. These two separate events this week got me thinking even more than usual about leadership and what makes a good leader. I have worked to date in a number of different University (and Hospital and Research Institutions) environments, both as a member of different leader’s teams, and as a leader myself at different levels of the University organizational structure. In these different roles I have seen examples of both good and bad leadership, and how the good leaders create an environment where it is exciting to work in and one feels one is part of a team working for the common good and ‘doing’ something special, and how in contrast bad leaders can tear apart a previously healthy work environment, creating conflict, suspicion and unhappiness, and eventually mass resignations of staff, either due to their personal leadership style or due to the processes they enact that are not well received by the staff they manage. I have been on many leadership and management courses to date, and read a number of books and scientific articles on optimal management and leadership behaviour, and while it is easy to describe the effects of good and bad leadership on teams they manage, incredibly, given how indelibly part of our societal behaviour the concept of leadership is, it appears to be very difficult to ‘pin down’ exactly what makes a good leader, or indeed, what a good leader is.

A leader is broadly defined as a person who is followed by others, and to lead is defined as to cause others to go with one, by guiding or showing the way or by going in front. A leader cannot exist as an independent entity – essential to a leader is an organization or group of people that either require leadership or look to someone to lead or guide them. Organizations can be formal, such as is often found in work environments, or informal, where a group of people live together and which are often managed by a leader in an informal manner, such as a family, community, or friends interacting together. In the formal environment, the leader would set the strategic plans and goals for the team they manage, attenuate conflict between team members, and ensure the work environment is optimal to allow both maximum productivity of the team and wellbeing of the team they manage. In the informal environment, a leader would make decisions that would optimise the functioning of the group of people attempting to live harmoniously together, whether as a family unit or in a community. There has long been a debate on whether leadership is needed and whether teams, either formal or informal, would function better with or without a leader. When looking at primates and animal organizations, most appear to function with clearly defined leadership and hierarchal roles and environments. While in most animals these leadership roles are strength related, this is not always the case. In most self-organizing groups that have not existed before, leaders are usually self-selected by the groups to manage the group dynamics, but of course one can never be sure whether this occurs due to innate requirements and practices of the group members, or are the result of the previous or current experiences of the members of the group in other areas of their life which are emulated in the creation of an new group structure. Whatever the case, it is clear that leadership is an inherent characteristic of nearly all human and animal organizational structures, and therefore there must be a teleological reason for having leaders in any organizational team.

As I said above, what makes a good leader is very difficult to define. There are a huge number of different theories on both what makes leaders and what specific ‘leadership’ attributes they possess (trait theory, basic style theory, situational theory, transactional theory, transformational theory, for example, amongst many others, for those folk that are interested in academic theoretical work on leadership). But, my experience after many years in academia and science is that when there are many different theories on any subject or concept, it means that the fundamental ‘basic’ mechanisms underpinning the concept have not been elicited to date, or that the concept is so complex and multifactorial that it will probably never be defined or clarified in any single way or by any single theory, and Leadership probably fits into this latter perception. For example, during several leadership courses I have attended in the past, my personality has been assessed by the Myers Briggs method (amongst other assessment methods), and I have a pretty strong ‘ENTJ’ profile (Extraversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgement), which apparently is the classical ‘leader’ personality profile. But, actually only between 10 and 20 percent of leaders have ENTJ profiles, and it is only perceived to be the classical leadership profile because a high proportion of folk with ENTJ profiles are in leadership positions compared to how many of them there are in the general population. As much as this is the case, one can also say that 80 percent of leaders have different types of profiles to that of the ENTJ profile, and indeed a percentage of just about every Myers-Briggs profiles are leaders, and probably do as good a job, but in their own way, as compared to us ENTJ folk. Equally, a high percentage of leaders (to a greater degree than in the general environment) have been shown to be sociopaths, or have sociopathic traits, but obviously that does not mean they are good leaders – I think all of us have experienced the nightmare of working for a sociopathic leader at some point in our life – it just means that more of them are leaders than are present in the general population. So, despite a huge amount of research on what makes a good leader, it is still not completely clear from a definition perspective what makes a good or bad leader. Equally, a good leader is only as good as the team he or she leads, and a leader can lead an organization in a magnificent way, but if the wider social environment is negative or dysfunctional, the leader will likely ultimately fail due to external pressures from the wider environment that have a greater negative effect on the organization than that of the positive ‘pressures’ generated by the leader. Thus, the organization will fail whatever the leader does, or how good they are as leaders, if the organization they are leading is operating in a ‘toxic’ external / wider environment.

So going back to my own experience of what makes a good leader – my experiences at my previous places of work, and indeed my own social and family environments, have shown to me from a personal perspective what good and bad leaders are, even if it is hard to define what makes them such, and I am aware that what for me makes a good leader may be an example of a bad leader to others. I left the University whose human resources folk sent me the follow-up letter because of what I perceived to be poor leadership, however well-intentioned it may have been. I currently work at a University who has an extremely charismatic leader who is to me is an example of a good leader. However, how one personally becomes a better leader based on the examples one has is not straightforward, as all situations are different and all environments change constantly. I remember a good friend and academic colleague of mine from Australia, Professor Frank Marino, gave me the advice when I first took up a formal leadership position that the leadership is not about being a ‘boss’, but creating the best environment or ‘playing field’ to enable the folk in it to be the most creative they can be, in a strategic and planned way, but doing this in a way that it is not perceived to be either strategic or planned by the folk one is leading, which to me was very good advice, and has been through most of my career to date. One’s team will pick up very quickly if one is doing something for selfish reasons, or to further one’s own career. One’s team will pick up very quickly if one is being unfair or playing favourites, or if one displays evidence of a lack of integrity or honesty. They do respond positively to clear messages and good planning. They do respond positively to enthusiasm and support. They do respond positively to apologies for mistakes and behaviour on ‘bad hair days’ which all leaders have. Just about every person has periods of their life when they are leaders, and periods when they are in someone else’s team, often at the same time, depending on the different roles they play at work, in social and in home environments. How each person performs as a leader depends on their capacity to learn from their mistakes, improve themselves, and constantly self-reflect on their daily actions and interactions, and who their role models were in the times when they were in another’s team, and they will quickly be made aware by the behaviour of their team how they are doing as a leader. But defining the ‘true’ / absolute leader profile will perhaps always be a quixotic enterprise, and relative to each different environment and society / organizational structure. So to answer the question of whether a fleet would do better with Nelson as it’s Admiral, or if the fleet would do better if it was made up entirely of sailors with Nelson’s talent, but with no Admiral, is perhaps a question still waiting to be answered, let alone us understanding exactly what traits led to Nelson being so great as a leader in his time and situation, or at least him being perceived as such. Each person has to find their own leadership style and manner, and how the ‘sailors’ in their ‘fleet’ respond to them is perhaps most important in, and will surely lead to, each well-led team attaining ‘victory’, whatever this means and is for each different organization and team.


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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