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29 Aug 2012 Back

Reconciling Visionary and Democratic Leadership

VIEWPOINT: Is leadership a democratic process based on valued relationships and debate? Or is it about one person’s clear motivating vision? In today’s complex world these views need to be reconciled say David Butcher and Martin Clarke of Cranfield School of Management:

Many people advocate what is known as consensus management to take account of the diversity of views and expertise within organizations, and in this way to tap into the wisdom of crowds. Others, looking at the success of leaders like Steve Jobs, argue the need for a clear personal vision of the future in the belief that followers will be galvanized behind that vision. As we seek to manage diverse agendas, are these differing leadership approaches reconcilable?

The Steve Jobs myth

The reality of the Apple success story was that Jobs relied on the views of many people, not just his own, as effective leaders must always do. It is a myth that just one person sitting at the top of an organization can somehow stimulate everybody else towards one single way of thinking. It is an example of what psychologists call ‘The fundamental attribution error’ – common sense explanations of the world that are fundamentally wrong.

In practice leaders do not have any choice nowadays in the way they build organizations. The business world is too complex for literally one, or even just a few individuals, to deliver all of the required leadership. Furthermore, we put much effort into educating and developing people in organizations to think for themselves, to innovate, to take responsibility. So why wouldn’t we want to draw on their opinions about organizational direction? And in any case, how would we stop them using those opinions when they do not believe in the wisdom of top management? We cannot have it both ways.

Reconciling these two approaches

It is essential to reconcile the diversity of leadership views. Small organizations are sometimes able to operate under the guidance of just one leader. But in more substantial organizations, those at executive level must content themselves with setting strategic objectives, and then allowing everyone else to work out how to realise them, provided ethical standards and the law are adhered to. However, they must also do something else. Senior leaders have to recognise that sometimes people can see more from within the organization than those at the top can. It therefore follows that, having set strategic parameters, leaders should be open to those being challenged. To put that another way, if you are at executive level you must at times be led by those below.

Agenda management

Contemporary organizational leadership is best described as agenda management, a process of reconciling diverse views by giving time and airspace to others without losing sight of your own vision. So much depends on the quality of relationships around you, because it is relationships that represent ‘social capital’ in a business.

That capital is worth so much because it allows competing agendas with genuine business validity to make their mark. Without that possibility, worthy agendas remain unexpressed, or worse, repressed. Neither is good for the business. The key lies in being able to harness the diversity of strategic view that will inevitably be there.  

Leadership development

Agenda management means developing the ability in leaders to resolve conflicts and get to grips with the sometimes difficult internal politics that go hand in hand with delivering productivity and profit. No leader will be able to do this without learning how to accept that this conflict of agenda is essential for the health of any organization. Thus leaders must discover how to challenge the status quo constructively, for sometimes those with influence may not want their thinking contested.

Final advice for leaders

Above all, it is key to recognise that leadership requires attention to three directions: the people who work for you, the people alongside you and those above you. Leadership is a negotiated process: you have to discover how to get results alongside other key stakeholders. The starting point is to encourage thorough intellectual appraisal of the business and to build quality relationships which allow you to resolve differences of strategic view.

Painting:  Pericles, the greatest and longest lasting democratic leader of the Athenians. This is an 18th Century painting by Hector Leroux.

Further Information

Dr David Butcher is Director, Centre for General Management Development 

Dr Martin Clarke, Programme Director, Centre for General Management Development

The Cranfield Business Directors Program 

Cranfield School of Management



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