Leadership is a decision

17 March 2022

Christian Stumpp, Global Online MBA participant, explores what he discovered in the Leadership module.

Many leaders start their career in an expert function. Just as I started my professional life as a scientist. When experts advance to leadership positions, they face a dilemma. You can leverage your expert knowledge and skills and do tasks yourself, or you can fully engage your leadership role and let go of your expert status. The latter requires you to let your employees be the experts and trust them. Yes, you need to be knowledgeable to communicate with your experts, but at the end of the day, you can be either an expert or a leader. Leadership is a decision.

I have learnt so much from my Global Online MBA Leadership module, including how to improve my emotional management, actually deciding to become a better leader and finally getting insight on how to build better relationships. The module enabled me to reflect on my own leadership style and learn what makes an effective leader. In this blog, I have shared a brief glimpse into my overall learnings.

What do leaders do?

The answer appears all too simple. Leaders drive change within an organisation. Specifically, leaders adapt organisations to external change or they expect certain changes to be beneficial for the future. However, what does change mean? An organisation is nothing more than a web of relationships between humans. To change the organisation as a whole means to change people’s behaviour. This in turn means unlearning old behaviours and acquiring new ones. Anyone who has tried to change a habit privately knows how hard it is. Now imagine changing multiple habits of thousands of people across the globe. This is what leaders do: they change people’s behaviour permanently on large scale over a long time span.

How do leaders drive change?

As leadership is ultimately about people, leaders have to understand the needs of people in general and of their people specifically. We can break this down to six aspects: belonging, wellbeing, security, feeling valued, fulfilment and connectedness. Leaders need to build alliances and followers, which is impossible in the long term if they do not perceive their employees beyond their roles – as human beings. Treat everyone compassionately, even when times are tough.

Of course, driving change is actually about breaking up bonds, reshuffling teams and even letting people go. Change can present a great source of anxiety for employees, so leaders need to create a strong vision of the future that will encourage the organisation to follow into uncharted territory. Leaders paint a vivid, larger-than-life picture of a great future.

Having set a big goal post and pointed out the direction, leaders have done the first step, but a long journey lies ahead. Change “ain’t a track leap, it’s a marathon” (Ice Cube, 1999). Now people have to believe that vision. To instil this trust and confidence, leaders need to create small wins to keep people motivated, but simultaneously remind them that the road ahead is still long and bumpy. This creates success, and success breeds more success. In principle, instilling trust and confidence is the only job a leader has to do.

How do leaders move projects forward? There are a few key aspects:

Be present. Join the important meetings. Talk to everyone involved. Show interest. Ask questions. People want to see that you spend time on the project, or they won’t trust it is important to you.

Communicate continuously. Listen to all the stakeholders. If possible, talk to people face-to-face. Repeatedly send out the key points of your vision. In addition, don’t forget, that everything you do is communication. Where you show up, at what time. How long you stay. What you wear, what you say, what you do not say..

Influence the influencers. You have to know the influential people inside the company  and make them your allies. If you cannot, neutralise them. You can only succeed when your allies are more powerful than your opponents are. This means to lead from the back and from the front.

What leaders bring to the table

Given the monstrous tasks outlined above, it is no surprise that scientific studies found leaders to have certain traits (Yukl et al, 2019):

  • High energy level and stress tolerance. They can work long hours over a long period of time and stay focused
  • Internal locus of control orientation
  • Emotional stability
  • High core self-evaluations, they tend to see others and their work in a positive light, they take a more optimistic view toward their jobs
  • Personal integrity
  • Socialised power motivation – power moves are other-serving and prosocial
  • Moderately high achievement orientation
  • Moderately high self-confidence
  • Moderately low need for affiliation.

Leaders are people who have the energy to move things forward. They want to move up in the world and have the skills to do it. They know what their strengths and weaknesses are. They are predictable and can control their emotions. And of course, most leaders are not born, but made.

The challenges of leadership

As we have seen, leadership is a vast topic. While it seems that the goal is always similar – drive change – the means vary endlessly. You can build your leadership on authority or collaboration. You can focus all decisions on your person or empower your people. In the end the only question that matters is: how are you most effective in getting things done? No plan survives the first contact with the enemy, so leaders need to be very flexible in their approaches, but steady in their goals.

Because “nothing is more constant than change” (Heraclitus), leaders need to stay awake and aware. Keeping their eyes and ears inside and outside of the organisation. Like the Roman god Janus, you have to be present here and now, and simultaneously look into the future to find better ways for creating value for customers better than the competition. Leadership is the constant juggling of opposites.

Leadership, what a challenge, outcome unknown. We can learn some tools of the trade in business schools and on the job. But in the end, whether we are up to the challenge, is our decision.

Yukl, Gary, et al. Leadership in Organizations, EBook, Pearson Education, Limited, 2019

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