MBA Part 2: Reflections on Leadership

How you can become an effective and successful leader

Launching into an MBA during COVID meant jumping into a compulsory leadership unit by logging into Zoom. An online environment for an immersive course with high levels of interaction and live action simulations. A bold move. Opening an MBA with a mandatory leadership unit is another bold move but it makes perfect sense. The tools and mechanisms the unit uses empowers its students and puts all students across all cohorts on the same page for the remainder of their units. A collaborative and socially intense subject forces students to work together and to use frameworks for effective teamwork. As I highlighted in Part 1 I’ve decided to keep a journal of my MBA experience so that I can share my journey with you and help you figure out if an MBA is for you. Having listened, debated, considered and pondered leadership over the last 3 months, here are my reflections.

Lao Tzu understood that ‘a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’ and this remains true whether you’re Neil Armstrong taking ‘one small step for man, and one giant leap for mankind’ or if you’re a student, a pupil, on a journey of learning and discovery. For me, the very concept of practising and developing leadership challenged my ideas of leadership as leadership so often seems to arrive on our doorstep in unassuming ways, and in many forms, as traits or situations, and often without warning. How can you practice or develop a trait or a situation that may find yourself in? Through the mandatory leadership unit I came to understand that just as life develops our leadership capacity through adversity and events, a learning environment can not only replicate these events and situations, but it can provide tools, skills and time for constructive reflection and leadership development. In this sense our personal capacity for leadership is correlated to the accumulation of experiences and our ability to learn from those experiences.

Prior to studying Leadership Practice and Development (LP&D) I saw leadership through a variety of prisms. Leaders were not only iconic leaders like Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela but they were also leaders in their field like F.A Hayek and Eliud Kipchoge, or lifelong leaders like Margaret Thatcher and General Sir Peter Cosgrove, or people thrust into leadership like Gerald Ford, or even everyday people that through their stories became leaders. Prior to the unit it seemed to me that leaders were people of principle, those who had overcome their challenges, inspired others and had a clear vision. These leaders could inspire a movement of people whether they were alive or dead, and consistent traits among them was their dogged pursuit of excellence, a constant striving forward, and authenticity. They were committed to their true self whether you liked it or not, and they were committed to their beliefs, vision and their actions.

If I were to try and define leadership, I have to admit i’d struggle but I’d be reminded of a moment standing outside the mess hall as a gunner in Artillery talking to his Lieutenant. The Lieutenant simply said to me, “the leader eats last.” For me, leadership is summarised in that one simple sentence. The message was clear, put your people first, show empathy, lead by example, the team will be a reflection of you and your values — so make those values clear, live those values, and the team will follow you. The Army demonstrated the power of trust and that we can all be leaders and can also be followers. Traditions, processes, language and a clear rank structure dictate when you must be a follower, but situations create the opportunity for even the most junior of soldiers to show their courage, their authentic self and lead others forward. These same patterns were reflected during LP&D as simulations created junctures that required leadership to navigate the path, and often implicitly, someone would take the reigns and lead the team. As with the Army I noticed that during the uni course the identification of who the ‘leader’ was would often change as the leader was the person with the willingness to step forward, take control, and unite the team to the next decision, or leg of the journey.

Leadership can be episodic or an ongoing part of a person’s role in life. It can ebb and flow in our daily lives in an accidental way. If we are discussing with friends where we will go for a bite to eat at lunch, the one taking the initiative to suggest a restaurant has, for that moment, acted as a leader.”
- General Sir Peter Cosgrove

In theory and practice it appears leadership can be both situational and ongoing, therefore a definition of leadership that is situationally dependant is inappropriate. When investigating theory, the incomplete leader resonated with me as I was reminded of a personal moment in a coaching and development session. My manager and I were sitting on these rickety timber chairs in the courtyard of a trendy local café. In amongst his usual method of question and prolonged thought provoking silence, he said “you’re not perfect, I’m not perfect, and we never will be, but we can surround ourselves with people that balance us out, that fill the gaps and then they have to trust you and you have to trust them.” As the conversation evolved we discussed delegating, trusting and developing people, and how intangible rewards coupled with intrinsic motivation drive the success of the business and the people. The MBA’s formalisation of intuition or experience into theory has enabled me to identify leadership and development opportunities as well as how to leverage traits and situations. At the heart of the theory of the incomplete leader is the idea of trust and authenticity, and so far through general life experience — I have to agree. Through the MBA journey the class developed ‘the capacity to inspire and empower others’ with authentic leadership and to embrace the perfect imperfectness of the incomplete leader.

It’s important to understand that our perception of leadership will be different to another’s, that differences of opinion are inevitable as we each have different stories and life experiences, and that while some theories like the incomplete may resonate with me, another leadership theory will resonate with you. Leadership to me is then something developed through life’s journey and the accumulation of experiences. Leadership is having the courage and willingness to assume responsibility of a shared vision, to put others first and to use social influence to maximise the efforts of others towards the shared vision. A good leader is someone who embraces leadership, their authentic self and in accepting their own fallibility trusts others.

I was surprised to notice recurring patterns of leadership determination throughout the unit. I considered that natural personality types and people would always eventually be the leader or that situations might dictate who the leader was but I didn’t expect to see the same process take place irrespective of personalities and situation. The only two recurring aspects were online meetings (Zoom) and the silent process of figuring out the leader!

The initial leader of the group is the person who starts the dialogue, puts the team at ease and creates the environment for social cohesion. The second leader is the facilitator, the person with the technical skills and initiative to create a shared drive, a google document, a WhatsApp group or whatever is required to facilitate the session. Then there’s the task leader who brings the group on task and towards achieving the goal. This is then followed by a leadership vacuum. The leadership vacuum is where the success of failure of the team is determined. Maybe distributed leadership will arise or politeness will prevent anyone from stepping up and grabbing the bull by the horns. However, as with any team whether it be NFL or a software scrum team there has to be a leader for their to be sucess.

I can’t stress this enough. Throughout my experience of the unit and more broadly I’ve found that where there is a leadership vacuum there is a vacuum of sucess. Teams fail to unite, people are afraid to be their true and authentic selves and just as managers can shut people down and make teams perform poorly, leaders can open them up and extract the very best work out of people. The leader who steps up in the vacuum is generally the true leader of the team.

‘A leader must have the courage to take the first step forward’

The MBA course taught me that anyone can truly become a leader. Introverts and extroverts — it doesn’t matter what the personality type, we all have the potential for leadership. It’s also something that we can develop and build on but it takes a few character traits too. Luckily, these can be developed pretty easily as well, you just have to get out of that comfort zone.

Adversity.
Collective challenges bring people together. The idea of shared misery or a burden shared together. Going through a challenging and tough time with other people generally brings people together and gives them something to reflect on collectively. Share stories, reminisce and look back at how they went through that ordeal and got to the otherside. This can be important in building teams but it’s also important in building personal leadership capacity. To know what you are capable of you need to push yourself to your limits, to overcome hurdles, to be uncomfortable and see the otherside. If you always live in the safety of your little world and comfort zone then how will you ever grow or help other people overcome their obstacles. So go on, get out there, do something hard, don’t be afraid, just go and tackle it head on. Say yes! Say yes to that challenge or that outing you were afraid of! You’ll be more confident, courageous and have more self belief afterwards.

Trust.
You simply can’t be a leader if people don’t trust you. They won’t follow you, they won’t listen to you and they won’t believe in your vision. You need to be transparent, open, and trust your people to do their work. If you can do that then you will build trust with them — trust is a two way street after all. The funny thing with trust is that it builds credibility, loyalty and all sorts of other positive emotions and attributes. Check out Judith Glaser’s conversational intelligence as well — it’s a great example of the power of trust. Great leaders are trust worthy and trusting.

Courage.
You must have the courage to step forward, to take one for the team, to go for the vision, reach for the goal and to go and be uncomfortable. The difference between managers and leaders is the courage to do what’s right, to go for the hard goal and to step up infront of all esle and protect your team or create a bold vision. Courage shows up in all sorts of little ways but leaders always have it. It’s a slippery slope once you start chickening out, lacking the courage to have one tough conversation quickly slides down to a lack of trust and a crumbling team.

Unification.
This sounds like a bit of a weird one but a team needs to be unified. They need to have a shared vision. Everyone can do their own tasks autonomously but everyone needs to understand what they are working towards, how they are supporting each other and how they are as a team. As a leader it’s your job to unify the team.

A Reflection of You.
Managers often fall down at this stage. They simply don’t get it and sayings like “do as I say not as I do” prove it. The team you manage will become a reflection of you. The easiest example of this is in sports. The lazy coach with a bad diet and habits has a lazy team. The coach that rises early, is disciplined and focuses on doing their job so everyone else can do their jobs is successful (think Bill Belichick). As with my Lieutenant, leaders need to live a clear set of values. Explicitly articulate those values and actively live and show them. The team will reflect them. If you skip the Monday meetings or turn up late each day then that signals to the team that it’s okay for them to do that. If you say that it was a good effort and that trying is all that matters then your team will be satisfied with trying rather than winning.

Great leaders understand that it often comes down to doing the little things right. The one percenters as my football coach used to say. Focus on the one percenters. My commanding officers phrase was “brilliant at the basics” and if you were brilliant at the basics then you’d be great at the complicated stuff to because by being brilliant at the basics you had the discipline, control and focus you need to be great at everything else. Bill Belichick focuses players to do just “do your job” and focus on that small aspect of the game and do it perfectly. Focusing statements and mantras of leaders include things like “prior preparation prevents poor performance”.

For some reason, teams need leaders and great leaders seem to understand that team success often comes down to the little things. To paying attention to the detail which for leaders means paying attention to your people and trusting them to do their jobs and all the little components of it correctly.

There’s a lot to leadership and this unit really showed it. The MBA not only provided the theory of leadership but it deliberately placed students in situations where they had the opportunity to become the leader. Students had the opportunity to show courage, tackle adversity, build trust and openly communicate with each other to create high performing teams in tough situations.

If you have any questions then please feel free to comment, and if there is anything you’d like to see analysis on or read about in the future then let me know.

Also, please note that this article does not represent financial advice or the views of any organization; it is only the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Thank you for reading.

Yours,
Chris Leeson

Bringing finance and economics to you with a focus on in-depth analysis and everyday life.