By Michael L, Global MBA Student 2012-2013
There was mud everywhere: in the mucky water up to our knees, all over our clothes, sucking in our feet and clouding our otherwise-composed minds. Ten of us business students, were crawling through a muddy path in the forest, scrambling over fallen trees with a heavy pole laid over out shoulders. Here we were supposed to learn leadership. In fact, I was the one chosen as leader. Not because of any particular skills, knowledge or experience that I had, but just because that's what was decided.
The worst part was that I wasn't even good at it. I'd led teams at work in the past, and I'd even served a few times—more or less effectively—as deputy at certain other exercise I the same program. But, in this one, I was tripping over myself (sometimes quite literally!), never too sure where to stand, what to do or how to lead.
I suppose the point of this particular exercise and of the whole program was to provoke thought and self-reflection about leadership, and that it did. A few observations:
If I consider myself personally effective and I presume most of my classmates consider themselves thus as well. When a group of effective & motivated people come together to accomplish a common goal, that goal ought to be easy to accomplish... yet, for different reasons, it cannot accomplish itself. We witnessed many examples of this throughout our four days at Saint-Cyr.
Our first exercises seemed to follow a particular pattern: no one had a clear idea of what to do, but everyone had ideas; a leader was arbitrarily appointed; the group spent so much time & energy hashing out ideas that none of our activities were completed on time. So many voices, all trying to talk at the same time, that no one could make sense of anything, no reals plans of action could be made. Worse, potentially good ideas got lost in the cacaphony: in one of our first exercises, our intructor informed us that one of our team-mates had suggested the correct solution, but no one had listened to her at the time. We all observed the dysfunction and understood the cause of it, yet it persisted.
If a leader’s effectiveness is judged by his direction of a team toward a successful outcome, then our assigned leaders were utterly ineffective in our initial exercises. Decision-making was done collectively: people presented ideas, arbitrary voices pronounced them ‘good,’ opposition was always discussed and when agreement was reached, action was taken.
A result of this was that our decision-making process was arbitrary and reactive instead of pre-planned: it lacked coherence, methodology and structure. It was also very slow: our exercises had time constraints and with this kind of collective rabble, none of our initial exercises were completed on time. In the real world, being timely can make the difference between success and failure, so the need for strong, decisive leadership became even more apparent, if only to get things done on time.
Our instructor assigned leaders to lead specific exercises, but many leaders were largely ineffective in leading the group to accomplish the tasks. I suspect that this is because they were hesitant to impose themselves & their ideas when they had no better ideas or insights than anyone else.
This is in contrast to the (supposed?) meritocracy of the real world where leaders generally distinguish themselves from their subordinates by their knowledge, experience or skills and this is how they get their position. Its easy to lead subordinates in those circumstances. Much harder to lead peers who are equal to the leader. Yet leading peers and get one’s ideas across to ones’ equals is obviously an important skill to learn, and it was clearly an objective of our group excercises at Saint-Cyr. And peers we were: throughout our program, there were no ranks & distinctions aside from our instructor (who served mostly as a guide to exercises, not a leader) and the arbitrarily-defined “leader” of an exercise, who the same as everyone else in everything but name.
As we went through other exercises and realized the need for leadership, we witnessed the organic emergence of natural leaders who rose to the ocassion to give direction and organization when it was necessary to get things done. These stood in contrast to the the arbitrarily appointed leaders. I wonder what makes for a “natural leader?” Surely its more than just charisma. Self-confidence, perhaps? Some team-mates seemed to lack in self-confidence, and this made it much harder for them to assert themselves in the group and give instructions for others to follow.
Thinking about leadership
What makes a leader? Does the title make the leader or does the leader make the title? Does a real leader need a title?
A leader ought to be chosen based on his capacity to lead. Exactly what that means is still not clear to me, but the emergence of natural leaders in our exercises is apparently evidence of this and an answer to the second two questions.
A leader must be implicitly recognized as such by his team. Without that recognition, he becomes ineffective in his role and natural leaders can potentially emerge in his place (or not). A designated leader is responsible for successful outcomes or failures in his objectives, but a natural leader is not: the natural leader serves only as a facilitator towards the accomplishment of a task, so he is less accountable if that task does not succeed. The burden of responsibility for failure, bad ideas or bad implementations generally rests on the assigned leader.
A leader must establish himself early on in order to be effective. His legitimacy comes from character, charisma & is supported by the effectiveness of ideas and leadership. Once legitimacy has been obtained, it can be fragile: a lack of decisiveness or effectiveness and it could be lost. Once its gone, it is difficult, if not impossible to regain. Respect is also a key factor. When a leader is recognized as such, he gives direction and his team listens. If a leader is not recognized, his team might ignore him, or might not take his directions seriously. This is the opening for a natural leader to emerge. Whoever is recognized as the leader, must be both assertive and decisive: he must remain focused on the desired outcome and anticipate the next course of action to take, while his team remains focused on the current task at hand. This means that he must necessarily take a bit of distance from his team: he can participate in their tasks, but just is is important they remain conscious of their roles, he should be conscious of his:
A leader is the lynchpin that holds a team together in their common purpose and helps direct them to it.
Holding the team together & focusing its energies towards effective action means understanding that there is a time for reflection and there is a time for action. As we learned at Saint-Cyr, this process can actually be methodologized (the SMEP method, for example), which could lead to more effective decision-making under pressure. The leader can acknowledge a lack of ideas and solicit good ones from the team, but when the time for action has come, he must ensure that new discussions and disagreements do not detract from accomplishing the task at hand.
The leader needs to tell his team when to shut up and get to work, yet balance this with being receptive and open to his team and their ideas.
He must also understand his team and remain aware of both their capabilities and current state. By being mindful of their capabilities, the leader can assign them appropriate roles where they can bring the most value towards attaining the objective. This is a key component of leadership: if the leader is aware of what his team members are able to do autonomously, he can let them do so and does not need to micromanage. His role is to help organize: to give direction or feedback only when it is needed.
Especially under stress or hard conditions, his primary task is to maintain cohesiveness and ensure that members are working as a team rather than as individuals. My classmate, Matthias, phrased this quite succintly:
“Normal operations require a manager to organize; crises require a commander to lead.”
What I learned about myself
I’d previously been a leader at work, but never under such situations: I was never a leader at a task that I knew absolutely nothing about; I was never a leader in situations of such physical stress or, quite honestly, on a team that was so dysfunctional.
In previous real-life leadership situations, I had been designated as a leader due to my experience, knowledge or skills; in this case, the designation was completely arbirtrary. This is both a strength and a hindrance: obviously a weakness because it does not reflect reality (at least in most cases), but also a strength because it forces participants to understand the dynamics of leadership: specifically when the leader is in a position to have to lead or push his ideas to his peers. Leading subordinates is easy, leading peers is very difficult.
Another surprising revelation was about the role of a deputy. In a seminar about leadership, its obvious to focus on the role of the leader: the importance of the role & playing it effectively... Less apparent is the role of the deputy. In my personal experience at Saint-Cyr, I took on the role of deputy in at least 3 exercises, sometimes I was appointed to the role, sometimes I just gravitated to it. A deputy has a unique position: that of authority, but not of responsibility: since the leader is ultimately responsible for critical decisions & the deputy is only responsible for their implementation, he has authority without the burden of responsibility. I wonder if this helped me be more effective somehow.
The final exercise was my one shot at being leader and I can honestly say I didn’t do well. Many of the lessons & observations in the previous pages came from that experience of being leader myself. I had a hard time filling my role of being aware of my team, and helping them organize themselves. Instead, I got bogged down in details and unnecessary attempts at micromanagement.
When I ought to have been in front of my team assessing which direction they should take, how to use each of their strengths so we could move quickly and without getting tired, I instead got caught up in their roles, either over-managing or focusing on carrying weight instead of moving forward. I should have been thinking of the next step instead of the current one.
At different times, I witnessed another team-mate take on the role of natural leader when I was absent or distracted from my designated role. When there were obstacles to overcome, he organized the group, not me. Yet, when others outside his field of view fell out of line, sometimes I wasn’t present to put them back into it, and as a result, the output of the whole team suffered.
All said, being a leader is definitely much easier to describe than to do.