Winston Churchill, widely recognised as one of Britain’s greatest leaders, observed that ‘history is always written by the victors’. For me, business is a little like history worthy leaders expounding upon the secret source of their success. Note their success not that of their great leadership teams; to the victors the prize of being number 12 in the top 20 business books on the shelves of the book store at the airport.
As a scientist by training, looking at the question sensei posed to me it can be represented as a multivariable analysis: Let’s look first at the extremes.
Poor Leaders with Poor Leadership Teams
These do, perhaps surprisingly, exist more frequently than one imagines even in quite large corporations but not for long and normally only if their product, despite issues of quality, is in great demand and scarce. But let’s discount existence and look at sustainable high performance driving enduring stakeholder value as the overall goal, then who would not want to be working for a great leader as part of a great leadership team?
Great Leaders with Great Leadership Teams
The benefit to a great leader of a great leadership team is the ability to rapidly react to the external environment managing change while maintaining a high performance. This flexibility creates opportunities to respond to new market conditions be they good or bad. The leader can trust in the communication down and across functions of a common purpose, aligning staff to the key strategic, leadership and operational goals necessary for success. Additionally, perhaps of greatest value, is the ability of a great leadership team to manage up to the leader to challenge assumptions and co-create enduring solutions to business problems. Leaders may at time prefer a quieter life and I have seen high performing businesses with leaders with a directive, one might say dictatorial style but with acute shyness overcome by a great leadership team who were able to translate the directions into a well-executed and communicated plan. No one size fits all. The value of a great leadership team is the complementation of abilities, both hard and soft skills, to adapt to the increasingly rapid changes within the global market place that demand changes within the business.
Good Leaders with Great Management Teams
In the situation of a good leader who is able to provide some alignment and strategic guidance but not able to perform at the highest level, they are unlikely to be able to have a Great Leadership Team. Why? Establishing then nurturing a Leadership Team from good to great is both hard work and something forged over time, work in short that takes a great leader with a clear vision and desire to do this leadership work.
But to return to sensei’s question: “Does a great leader NEED a great leadership team?”
Looking at the other combinations, I have seen successful businesses with great leaders and good leadership teams that can perform successfully but only at certain points of their business cycle. Good Leadership Teams tend to translate into a good set of Managers who occasionally demonstrate leadership. John P.Kotter’s observations in the 80’s in “on What Leaders Really Do” on the difference of Management and Leadership four decades later remains for me essential reading on the difference:
Management – the goal of keeping the current system functioning
Leadership – to produce useful change, especially non-incremental change.
I believe that a great leader will always struggle to create non-incremental change unless supported by a great leadership team but to be optimal it requires members within the leadership team with a range of propensities for management to maintain the current system through to leadership of change. Change for change sake leads to chaos and disillusionment as people become overloaded with the latest improvement initiative.
Some situations may lend themselves to a great leader without a great leadership team. One example is a small start-up business where a strong leader has the ability to reach into and steer operational aspects of the business while simultaneously articulating to funders’ sufficient progress to attract investment that permits hiring of gaps to create the foundations for a great leadership team to take the business to the next level of maturity.
However, just as external conditions are now constantly changing, the concept of what makes a great leader is not permanent but changes with the business. If the goal for a business is successful high performance then success brings with it new challenges.
It is worth remembering Churchill’s reward for his successful leadership in 1940 to 1945 when he was considered to be our most popular prime minister – was to be voted out in the next general election. His qualities which had served so well during war were deemed a liability in peacetime. This is also true of the business cycle, the qualities of a great leader and the criticality of needing a great leadership team change over time.
Crawford Brown CEO Eden Biodesign