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Leadership and Underlying Challenges – The Scholar Practitioner Divide

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Co-Founder and CEO Shajuls Business and Management Consulting

Author: Dr. Julian Rowa Lifelong experience, years of substantial exposure at the workplace, and the subsidy of academia at higher learning institutions are the masts that inform this piece. The three dimensions or pillars are applied separately and collectively to interrogate the question of leadership and the underlying challenges. They are also pivotal in dismembering the critical issues. Additionally, they aid in better absorption of a matter that is otherwise just as vague as it is central in today’s world of work. The pillars helped organise and shape thinking on true leadership and the problems that require confronting to achieve the much desired but elusive step change. Arguments adduced are a culmination of a depository of knowledge gathered over many years and infused with personal insights without prejudice to conventional thinking in this subject today. The question under scrutiny is the fundamentals of leadership and the extent to which they hold true. What are the fundamentals of leadership? The rudiment has five key areas. They represent those elements where the most significant reliance can be placed to provide progressive and responsive leadership, and evidently so. Those captured are factors not only applicable in diverse situations but are largely generalizable. Therefore, the arguments will resonate with Industry Captains, Corporate Executives, and Political and Societal authorities, including General Managers in diverse institutions. The article, however, targets organisational and business leaders.


In recent years, there have been growing concerns that “leadership” is dysfunctional and devoid of inspiration, the killer instinct required to mobilize followership towards a pre-determined goal. Increasingly, and this is the problem statement that needs examining, leaders are vacating the core principle of being accountable. Credibility has ceased to be an entrenched value, and teamwork is a mirage. This can be blamed on competing interests and complexity in the adaptive systems. Furthermore, increasing entanglements make leadership more convoluted today than it was a decade or two ago. Is there a misconception on what leadership is? Certainly and especially more evident when analysing the placement of people in senior positions today. More and more, skills, competencies, and the requisite attributes required to lead are being relegated for expediency. For this to be remedied, conversations on leadership must change. But what is “Leadership?” Ahead of exploring the fundamentals, leadership and the thinking of it has evolved, having developed from classical to neo-classical theorem. In the early years, leadership focused on “what” needed to be done, a rigid and static view focused on outputs. In the last three decades, however, this transitioned to the “how.” The how accentuated empowerment and knowledge management, behaviour was also a key feature. The various philosophies of leadership have caused varied though complimenting understanding of what leadership is thereby advancing numerous problems and challenges. From a sampled delineation, Robert House and others 2002 define leadership as the ability to influence, motivate and enable others to deliver. A practitioner, Myles Monroe, in “becoming a leader” 1993 decries leading others where one can’t master themselves. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones 2006 assert that leadership is “situational and excites people to extraordinary levels whilst making performance meaningful.” Rudi Guliani 2002 saw leadership as looking to learn, seeking out sources of knowledge, and an inspiration to solve problems. This bouquet of definitions has elevated the confusion. What account, if any, should leadership proponents identify with? For not being well-bounded, problems occur between the leader and the led primarily because of dissimilarities in expectations. Similarly, the gap between theory and practice needs bridging. There is a misalignment between the philosophy of leadership and the meaning assigned to it and general execution. The former comes across as an academic fad in a region where there is no shared or a common platform for academics and practitioners to exchange, learn, test and examine new knowledge. Consequently, the much needed synergy is lost because of over theorization of leadership concepts without an elaborate “go-to-market formulae.” The extra work that would make theory practical such as developing corresponding attributes and measurable deliverables have been ignored. This removes any possibility for continuous improvement and makes measuring leadership to determine its success fuzzy. More puzzling is the distinction between leadership and management which is blurred, causing misperception. It must be noted that whereas one can manage without leading, one cannot lead without managing. Subsequently, as Daniel Coleman put it, leadership that gets results is self-aware and emotionally intelligent, is all-inclusive and knowing.   


Now to the fundamentals of leadership suggested for leaders to attune to, top of the list is that those privileged to serve as leaders must strive to be the best version of themselves, being stewards of people. This virtue is propelled by a need to demonstrate role model behaviours that others can emulate for the team’s greater good. Second, effective leadership inspires action and triggers critical thinking in problem-solving among people. This makes a follower part of the solution and not the problem, an ambassador and not an assassin, bystander, or a disinterested commentator. Good leadership enflames value addition from the followers. The third fundamental is a deliberate and studious focus to understanding and solving the “real workplace” based problem unwaveringly. What this means is that a good leader paints the big picture of the reality and the desired end state and asks difficult questions. This can then be consolidated by building a powerful and a resilient guiding coalition to drive results. The fourth is inclusivity. Recognizing that everyone has a view, leaders must be receptive to “voice.” This fundamental espouses active listening and being intentional in a space where conversational intellectualism is a big dependency. Finally, leadership is situational and requires dynamism in approach. It recognises the individual strength and weaknesses of people relative to the task or the circumstances they find themselves allowing for continuous learning. The five fundamentals of leadership emphasize scoping the difficulty in a task and the attendant hotspots to mitigate the risk better, equip and rally the troops. Also critical, leadership needs to invest in mentorship and coaching for good order and continuity. Succession planning is an item a leader must obsess with. Setting clear and SMART objectives with emphasis more on results than effort is a critical success factor, alongside embedding a win-win mentality and rewarding success.


In his book Leading Change, John Kotter outlines the 8 step change model critical to developing and disseminating a compelling vision. Leadership’s key responsibility is to clearly articulate and communicate the road map to accomplishing an assignment, followed by an efficient operationalization. People must also see leadership and ethical practice as synonymous, and their actions must be beyond reproach. Consequently, an all-encompassing culture is the glue that holds everything together and must therefore be built with diligence. As argued by Yates 2004, true leadership envisions, energizes, and enables. Therefore, it is imperative that leadership also invests in and develops talent, empowers but more poignant, catalyses innovation and change to navigate the harsh terrain and counter emerging difficulties. Note, times of crisis become the litmus test and acts as a good gauge to determine the business’s health and leadership capability.   In Jim Collin’s book “From Good to Great,” he augments personal humility and indomitable will as a balance that leaders should strive towards. A tough mien in a crisis is desirable, although a motivational aspect of the team is essential. More importantly is one’s propensity to learn that is a dependency for incremental growth. But this also presents some difficulty. This is so because effective learning at best happens when one reflects on the issue as a leader, becomes deliberate in applying the lessons learned through testing and learning, and finally internalises those disciplines that work, making them the norm, the cycle then starts all over again. Another source of learning is leaderful practice. As shown by Joseph Raelin 2003, adopting a dispersed leadership model leveraging expertise can deliver more when properly applied. More pertinent is Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones question, “Why should anyone be led by you?” Self-interrogation is the perfect tool to positive change. Of note is that leadership is not just about “performance but about meaning” as well, rightly so.   CONCLUSION   In conclusion, leadership is best manifested in a state of chaos and the collaborative effort that ensues. Scholars and Practitioners must find a common platform to address the issues enumerated hereon.  Though contentious, it can be argued that most businesses and organisations are on autopilot with a dire need for prudent leadership and the associated impact. It is still unclear, leadership being dynamic, is it an inherent trait one is born with or a concept that can be learned? The overriding principle remains self-leadership, the practice of intentionally influencing ones thinking and action (Bryant and Kazan 2012) from the inside out and which must remain the prerequisite and a licence to lead at a global stage.