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Are Your Leaders ‘Fit for Purpose’?

By Mark Busine

Mark Busine

A few years back I read a great blog by Ben Horowitz that challenged the widely held view that leadership can be defined by a single set of characteristics and conditions. Drawing on a number of corporate examples, in particular Andy Grove’s experience at Intel, he described how certain leadership qualities work well in peacetime while others tend to be more effective in wartime. He also concluded that some leaders are in fact better suited to peacetime environments while others are better suited to wartime environments.

Fit for PurposeWhile Horowitz’s reference to peacetime and wartime was related to prevailing business conditions (e.g. pre GFC vs GFC), one of the most commonly cited examples of leadership and context is that of the former British prime minister, Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill was the British Prime Minister during the Second World War and his bulldog spirit captured the mood of the British people during the dark days of the conflict. After the war, however, the focus of the nation turned to rebuilding and Churchill quickly found himself at odds with the people. One of the greatest leaders in British history was subsequently defeated in the 1945 election with people concluding that the leadership he had demonstrated so admirably during wartime was not suitable for peacetime.

While I am not a great fan of war based analogies in leadership, Horowitz’s proposition is quite profound. If you examine the leadership literature over the last 30-40 years a lot of it often points to a single definition of leadership—and as Horowitz points out, tends to focus on peacetime leadership and ignores the leadership qualities of wartime conditions.

How general is "General Management?"

Introduced in the 1970s, the term General Manager is still widely used across the corporate landscape to cover senior leader and executive roles. The title is typically used to describe someone who has P&L accountability with responsibility for all aspects of a business’ operations. It is a relatively broad description that reflects a period that was by today’s standards, very stable and predictable.

In recent times, various commentators have started to challenge the '80s and '90s notion of the general manager. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) agreed that the concept had served to provide a foundation set of skills not universally adopted in the highly regulated and less complex business environment of the pre-80s period, but concluded that it would not be sufficient to support leaders in the increasingly complex business environment of the future characterised by volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity.

McKinsey & Associates introduced the concept of three horizons of growth, which represent concurrent business processes that address short-, medium-, and longer-term growth needs. With respect to leadership they also concluded that "If a company relies on one management system across its entire organisation, it is making the tacit assumption that all parts of the organisation have similar management needs.”

While the two contrasting conditions described by Horowitz help to illustrate how different conditions can demand different approaches and different types of leaders—in my experience the issue it is not quite so binary. There are many different challenges and contexts that leaders must step up to. Furthermore, leaders can adapt well to one set of challenges and conditions but struggle in another. Leadership certainly cannot be described as "general."

Ready now… for what?

Within the domain of leadership and succession management we often talk about the concept of readiness and preparing "ready-now" leaders. In fact as an organisation we are often asked to provide a perspective on the readiness of leaders based on a portfolio of data and information.

If we accept the view presented by Horowitz and others, then any question about readiness must be followed by the question, "ready for what?"

At DDI, we tackle this question through the use of business drivers. Business drivers represent the core challenges that leaders must step up to in order to deliver on the strategic and cultural priorities of the organisation. An organisation’s business drivers reflect the current and anticipated business landscape in which the organisation operates, including both internal and external influencing factors. Examples of business drivers include driving efficiency, enhancing the brand, shape organisational strategy and entering new global markets.

In any organisation it would be common to find multiple business drivers, and in any large organisation, different business drivers across different divisions.

If we embrace the concept of business drivers then they must form the foundation of any approach to leadership development and succession management. While a core of general leadership skills remains relevant, organisations need to consider the capacity of individuals to deliver on specific business requirements based on an assessment of relevant capabilities, experience and personal attributes. This ultimately enables the organisation to deploy the right talent against the right business need. If we accept the view of Horowitz and others then we must also confront the reality that individual leaders may be suited and ready to execute one set of business drives but struggle with others. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership.

From an individual perspective the question leaders must ask themselves is, “what am I required to do?”, “what do I bring that enables me to do this effectively?” and “what do I bring that could get in the way?”

Fit for Purpose

For some time now I have struggled with the overly prescriptive view taken on talent and leadership. In today’s complex business environment a single definition of leadership and leadership qualities is simply not possible—it is highly unlikely that one individual will bring the mix of skills, experiences and attributes that will ensure success in all conditions. Horowitz sheds light on the inherent risk of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to performance and readiness. Perhaps the conversation now needs to shift from a somewhat generic discussion based on leadership readiness to one based on leaders fit for purpose.

Mark Busine is managing director for DDI Australia.

Find out the most common business contexts in order of leader readiness from DDI’s latest research, High Resolution Leadership. For a synthesis of 15,000 assessments into how leaders shape the business landscape and predict leader success, download the full report.

Posted: 22 Jan, 2016,
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