By Hari Tsoukas

Some people may be born leaders, but for the rest of us leadership is something not many are prepared for. 

I have been teaching and researching leadership and organisational behaviour for more than 20 years and, though I admit there is no blueprint on how to be a leader, I believe the exercise of leadership is a skill that can be learnt with reflective practice.

Leading wisely is not down to particular techniques, but certain skills and attitudes that can be developed. Here, I give my five top tips to become a better leader, though everything else will have to be learned the hard way.


1 The ‘going beyond’ principle

A good leader needs to go beyond the immediate, the here and now; they should be concerned with the long term viability of the unit or organisation they lead.

They need to go beyond one’s narrow self-interest and consider the longer term implications of the situation. If they can do that, then they will generate trust among their staff and stakeholders, the type of trust they need to exist and function as a leader.

‘Going beyond’ enables leaders not to be bound by the immediate concerns of various stakeholders and see the long term implications.

Probably the finest example of this is Nelson Mandela’s framing of post-apartheid South Africa. After decades of imprisonment and brutality, he went beyond the self-interest of himself and his community and understood that he needed to balance the needs of the many different communities in the country if South Africa was to move forward.

He thus gained the trust of all sides and we felt the commanding presence of a leader. Even later in life, as a statesman, he resigned as President, even though he could have carried on in the post until he died.

He looked beyond the immediate satisfaction of his own narcissistic ego and instead looked at the long term future of South Africa. The viability of the new South African institutions was more important to him than his desire to hold power.

2 Hear the voices you don’t want to hear

In any company, in any issue you will have competing voices and a leader has to weigh them up to come to a decision. Leaders are under pressure to get results, but they must make sure they are hearing all of the competing voices, that none are being marginalised because what they are saying is difficult.

It might make things difficult and awkward, but they must hear the arguments from all stakeholders, especially as the dominant voices have to justify themselves, rather than risk missing important pieces of information.

An example when voices were ignored for an organisation to meet its goals was the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. The NASA leadership needed to maintain political capital and so concerns from the engineers of an important contractor were marginalised.

We know now how safety was compromised in the pursuit of meeting deadlines to launch Challenger. This accident has been studied at length and it was seen that engineers argued against the launch, but there was a lot of pressure to devalue their recommendations.

Marginalising certain voices enabled NASA management to make the decision to launch, but at the expense of getting the full picture.

One can never know if one has the full picture, but a leader must get as much of it as possible by including several stakeholders who might be marginalised, by having relationship-enhancing conversations rather than relationship-cancelling conversations and including the voices leaders don’t want to hear.


3 Sensing the common good

A leader must think about the wider impact of any decision or action. They have to think of the ‘common good’. That is not just for the good of the department or company, but the good of stakeholders outside the organisation.

Indirectly the organisation exists for a social good, it provides a product or service that is socially needed, but a leader has to see the wider implications of its role in society and include the many stakeholders.

A great example of this was how healthcare multinational Johnson & Johnson dealt with the Tylenol scare in 1982. Seven people died taking Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol, which had been deliberately laced with cyanide.

It was found to be a malicious attack by a third party, but Johnson & Johnson’s management decided to withdraw all 31 million bottles from the shelves, the first major recall in American history.

The decision, which was unprecedented, cost the company $100 million and it had to weigh that up with the firm’s need to make profits for the shareholders, but also the common good for society.

The company took a big hit, but it showed real wisdom and it is now seen as a great public relations decision as it re-gained its pre-crisis market share in a year and introduced the first tamper-proof bottles.


4 Process wisdom

Leaders need to be in tune with the temporality of events, the process of events and meetings that generate outcomes, as the quality of the process can affect the outcome.

They need to be sensitive to how even a conversation unfolds, how things move on, because one needs to be attuned to the process so that it unfolds in a more meaningful way to avoid getting a biased answer.

For example, the new CEO of a US company was told to grow the company fast, so she decided to outsource production to the Far East.

This met with a lot of resistance, with fears over redundancies and a loss of quality, so when the CEO presented her argument; she had to pay attention to how people reacted and how they expressed their feelings, their body language.

By being in tune with that and structuring her presentation and responses accordingly, she was able to win the argument.


5 Same same but different

Remember that every situation has its own unique context, no matter how familiar it may look. Sometimes, the manual doesn’t work; the blueprint doesn’t include every factor; that is when open-mindedness is needed to be aware this familiar situation is actually different.

A prime example of this was when Admiral Thad Allen confronted the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He had done many clean-up operations in the sea, but afterwards when he was asked if had a template to deal with the situation he said: “Yes, and no."

He drew on past experiences, but for this particular spill, the expectations of society and the US Government were well beyond what was even allowed by law - this was never anticipated by any document.

He realised that to do his job properly, he should not merely rely on his previous experience, but go further and see the uniqueness of this oil spill, of the context, and he, thus, decided to go beyond the letter of the law.


Hari Tsoukas is Professor of Organisation Behaviour and lectures on Leadership and the Art of Judgement on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London).

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