This column was first published on August 20, 2019.
Talk of the idea of leadership has reached a crescendo recently, with students registering for leadership courses, or for full degree programmes in leadership at first degree and graduate levels. Even advertisements for certain high level jobs require persons with leadership experience and knowledge.
And in academia, leadership programmes are being advertised as an important credential to have for anyone seeking teaching positions at the tertiary level.
A wave of interest has therefore developed in the area of leadership, as a credential of note to have in both public and private sector organisations.
But is there clarity as to what leadership is about?
James Comey, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), states that great leaders are people of integrity and decency, are kind and tough, confident enough to be humble, are transparent, and seek meaning in their work.
Does this description provide clarity and meaning concerning the nature of leadership?
I think it does, since anyone in a leadership position should show integrity and decency in the sense that they are believable and trustworthy. It means their behaviour is based on moral values, and is predictable. They treat employees with respect and fairness, and cultivate a culture of trust.
The leader who possesses the multiple qualities of kindness, toughness, and humility, demonstrates flexibility based on the requirements of the moment. These are behaviours that enable such a person to deal successfully with challenging situations requiring flexible skills, which lead to the achievement of goals.
Leadership that is transparent and which seeks meaning in the work to be done displays openness, shares responsibilities, and practices democracy at the workplace. Meaning implies having a sense of purpose and direction, and being sure of what the outcomes of an activity would look like. This inspires employees to be more creative, encourages teamwork, and makes employees feel they are important.
Comey’s ideas are valuable, and reasonable. They come from a person who was at the top of his profession, had dealt with seasoned professionals, and experienced the inner workings of a highly regarded organisation. His views provide strength to a rising leadership wave.
John Lewis, a black congressman in the US says that leadership is about being brave, bold, and courageous. He brings these ideas from the civil rights movement, where he endured some of the most brutal aspects of police action.
For me, such social circumstances call for the psychological and emotional competencies which only an authentic leader could bring to events. It takes stamina and resolve to know that when you march for civil rights, the system will confront you with a powerful response. This is the kind of leadership Lewis provided. And he achieved a remarkable level of success.
Each social and political event fosters its special kind of leadership response. This makes leadership a flexible strategy. And this is why the leader has to have a variety of skills when responding to complex developments.
One of my favourite historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, in a recent book on leadership says that leaders should display extraordinary empathy, know how to talk to people, persevere, and be able to arrive at a consensus.
I share this historian’s view of leadership.
When leaders show empathy, they become one with the situation they seek to deal with. This means involvement in the process to change things for the better. Empathy reflects the humanity of the leader, and sensitivity to what needs he or she is attending to.
The leader with communication skills is able to speak to others with humility, and without arrogance. He or she is easy to approach, and is respectful to members of the company. A sense of collegiality develops, which fosters engagement with the ideals of the workplace, and makes productivity possible.
Perserverance is a virtue where leadership is concerned. The authentic leader does not give up, but persists in efforts to realise designated outcomes. In the event that circumstances change unexpectedly, the leader bolsters the group, signaling the importance of accomplishing the mission, and utilises their ‘know how’ to devine alternatives, so that set targets are not interrupted. Perserverance goads everyone along because of a culture of wanting to achieve.
Arriving at a consensus is critical for the achievement of objectives. It is the magic that pulls all efforts together so that everyone is onboard with what is expected. Leadership is manifested in the ability to explain the purpose of the project, its impact on the company, and the role of actors in effecting the desired result.
The leadership wave occurs when over time, new thinking occurs with respect to how better outcomes could be achieved, making the organisation more efficient. This wave is observed in the approach to leadership by Comey, utilising multiple skills including the qualities of decency and integrity. This is followed by Lewis, who sees leadership as being courageous and bold. And the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin who introduces empathy and communication to the leadership wave of ideas.
For me, the concept that encompasses the wave of all the leadership ideas is authenticity. Leadership is about uniqueness, and critical reasoning. True leadership brings these to bear in accomplishing the demands of the moment and beyond.
• Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus. He holds an M.Ed degree from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past permanent secretary in education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands. Printed with the permission of caribbeannewsnow.com.