Your way or mine?

August 26, 2021
Arjav Chakravarti

Notes on leadership: Part 1

The opportunity to work with people who run different kinds of organizations has been a highlight of being a consultant as well as a coach. Engaging with leaders as they envision the future, respond to situations and make decisions has underlined for me that people express leadership in many different ways.

However, labelling these individuals as being good leaders or otherwise holds little appeal for me because changes in time, circumstance or viewpoint often upend such analyses.

I find it more illuminating instead to treat leadership as a journey, to look at where a person wants to reach and how much progress they have made towards their goal. As with any seeking, it is worth looking at those who have travelled ahead and asking, “What can I learn from their experience?”

Through this series I will highlight a few instances from my work with senior leaders, with the hope that it draws the reader to personal reflection on their own journey.

Heading an organization often means working with a number of stakeholders – colleagues, funders, partners, Board members, members of communities served, customers, and so on. Do these people always, or even often, want the same thing? Emphatically, no. Understanding and harmonizing different interests is integral to the role of an organization leader. Even so, leaders take distinct approaches to managing stakeholders, as emphasized during my work with two individuals.

Atul headed a prominent research organization. Well-regarded as an expert in his field, he had come to lead the organization during a time of rapid growth. A few of the needs Atul was presented with on an almost daily basis: team members wanting to do stable, long-term work, second line managers aspiring for more growth, funders nudging the organization to take up short-term consulting projects, end users asking for research on more topics, and his own desire to spend part of his time being a hands-on researcher.

Atul approached the situation as one might an optimization problem, with the belief that a leader should fulfil the needs of each stakeholder to the extent possible so that some progress would occur on all fronts. On him lay the onus of decision making – what to promise which funder, which kinds of projects to take up, whom to promote, what to work on himself, and so on. I had the impression of watching a juggler in action. He had a situation to manage and so manage it he would.

Some of the people who worked with Atul mentioned that he came across as being half-hearted; that his desire to keep everybody happy meant that he was unable to articulate a clear vision or take a stand.

A few months later I worked with Uma who had been hired to lead a similar kind of research organization, and work with its own array of stakeholders. Her approach? She took a long, hard look at what she wanted to do as an individual – what she found meaning in doing, the kind of organization she wanted to be a part of, the work relationships she wanted, and how she wanted to spend her day. Not only was this nucleus of awareness at the centre of her interactions, but transparently so. Unlike Atul, Uma did not see a situation to be managed but a problem to be solved.

Whether they agreed or disagreed with Uma, colleagues, funders, external partners or consumers had little doubt about where she stood on an issue as well as how to work with her.

Is Atul or Uma the better leader? Before you decide, consider the notion that perceptions are shaped by time, circumstance and viewpoint.

The real question is, which of these leaders would you want to follow?

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