Follow my leader

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Whether you’re working in the world of commerce, sports, science, or just about any sphere of human endeavour, chances are that if you progress far enough you’ll be asked to take responsibility for leading a team. But to do so successfully – in other words, to get the best out of people – is far from easy, or straightforward. For what it’s worth, here are a few of my thoughts on this puzzle – and I should stress that this is only scratching the surface of what is already a very large discipline in psychology, as well as the topic of innumerable self-help guides, autobiographies, and histories.

There are, I think, basically three main styles of leadership – intimidation, inspiration, and example. They are all ways of making people achieve things they didn’t necessarily realise they were capable of, but the methods employed are dramatically different.

Intimidation means bullying people, and using fear, aggression, and maybe even humiliation to get an improvement. It calls for the most confrontational kind of personal leadership – the intimidator must dominate those around him/her – and while unpalatable in print it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Some people are motivated best by the desire to prove others wrong, and being relentlessly denigrated will be a spur to greater achievement.

On the downside, it’s much harder to engender loyalty, it creates a constant risk of burnout in subordinates, and it’s probably the loneliest of the three for the person utilising it. Martinets seldom have mates.

Inspiration means galvanising people, and firing them with a vision. It calls for the most charismatic kind of personal leadership – the leader must make their team believe they are working towards a higher goal – and while it sounds appealing it might be the hardest to pull off. Incentivising people is a great way to motivate them, but they have to believe the reward is worth it.

On the downside, it often involves gambling on personal authority and as it’s the most intangible of the three it’s also the most fragile.

Exemplary leadership means demonstration – providing people with a visible template of the standard they should aspire to. It calls for the most direct kind of personal leadership – the leader behaves as he/she wants their subordinates to do – and while it’s the simplest to do, it’s deceptively hard to get right. Motivating people is one thing but leading them is not quite the same, and an exemplar who forgets to step back and consider strategy is not doing their job.

On the downside, it carries the risk of running oneself into the ground and as noted above, it’s possible to end up not leading because you’re too busy doing.

All three styles depend on maintaining the faith of subordinates. Lose that faith – whether it derives from the fear factor, the trust, or the respect – and you lose control of them. This is why a change of leadership can often be necessary even if operationally things don’t alter much.

Not every style is suitable for every person or every occasion, which is why hiring decisions are so important. Subordinates need to be able to respond to the leadership mode being used within a team.

It’s also the case that not everybody can employ every leadership style, and probably one of the most important lessons for someone making the transition from team-member to team-leader is to determine what works for them and what doesn’t. Trying to behave in a way that doesn’t come naturally is difficult and very hard to pull off with conviction.

It’s notable however that some of the best leaders – and I’m thinking in particular of Alex Ferguson here – appear able to shift styles depending on who they’re dealing with. It’s interesting how anecdotes of Ferguson alternate between him being a father figure one day, and a slave-driver the next. Steve Jobs‘ ability to both bully and inspire has become the stuff of computer industry legend.

In science, as in any occupation, all archetypes can be found on display. Whatever style you employ though, I’d make one recommendation – even if you’re titled “principal investigator”, don’t forget that what you are, and what you need to be, is a “group leader”.

*The statues show Prince-Bishop Julius Echter, founder of the Juliusspital and Würzburg University, Philipp von Siebold, scion of a prominent medical family, and Tilman Riemenschneider, one of the foremost sculptors of his time. Despite appearances, I’ve no idea what leadership style each employed.

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