Leadership coaching

Effective Leadership Just Got Personal by James Ashton

THAT this book feels more like a coaching session than a treatise on leadership is most probably a function of the author having spent a large part of his career coaching executives.

The tone is personal and thoughtful, and singularly lacking in the “see how I did it and try and imitate me” that plagues so many accessible books on leadership. 

In his Harvard Business Review article in 1977, entitled Managers and Leaders: Are they different?, Abraham Zaleznik argued for the difference. Some 30 years later, he did an about-turn and admitted that leaders must manage and managers must lead.

Author James Ashton takes as his starting point that “leader and manager… aren’t different people; they are complementary parts of every leader or manager’s job”.

Too often we confuse leading with being the CEO or president, when in fact almost all leaders or managers are far less high profile and found in every level of every organisation. The oddity is that while many aspire to “to become a fireman or a policeman or a millionaire”, rare is the person who aspires to being the assistant manager of an information processing team - yet that is what most managers become. 

Many of the names we use to describe the workplace suggest the coming together to make things happen: the company, the partnership, the corporation and the society. Leading in a company must involve assisting people to be able to be successful so that the organisation can be successful.

Leadership, Ashton explains, “is the function that enables ordinary people to show their strengths in ways that add immense value”.

Ask any South African to name a great South African leader and former president Nelson Mandela’s name will surely be on the list. In retrospect, was his leadership a “success”? The answer depends on what you are measuring.

His leadership on issues such as immigration, unemployment and many issues was decidedly unspectacular. His leadership in uniting a fractured nation and putting the country on the world stage for the right reasons was spectacular. A leader is measured in terms of his ability to meet the expectations of various groups of significant others, and herein lies the challenge - expectations change without notice and rapidly.

As such, a key factor in being an effective leader is understanding what the most significant stakeholders expect in order to deliver on those expectations. Many a one-time company highflyer has fallen from grace not though a loss of competence, but because of misreading his or her superior’s expectations. 

Ashton identifies the building blocks of a leader’s performance as ability and the degree to which the person is motivated to perform as a leader.

The transformational school of leadership which was very popular in the last part of last of the 20th century suggested that leaders did not have to be knowledgeable in the work their teams did, but rather to be competent in dealing with the people who were knowledgeable.

Ashton rightly rejects this approach by asserting that while a leader does not have to be the unit’s expert - in fact, it is better if he isn't - he is required to understand the pragmatics of the work the unit does.

Many a manager and leader is less interested in the difficult activity of leading a group of people than in the status of being the leader. Leaders must desire to be leaders or they will not succeed. This is a thought provoker that should not be quickly glossed over. Do you really desire to lead others? 

As to the correct style of leading - having a strong task focus or a strong people focus, leading change or executing - there isn’t one. The context will determine what is required and the leader’s ability to adapt to the needs of the day will determine his success.

One of the leadership styles that is given significant attention is what Ashton calls the Shepherd leader, and what others call the Servant leader. Too many see this as the kindly people-centred person, strong on respect, love and care.

Ashton interviewed a modern-day shepherd in the foothills of Lesotho and questioned him about his work. The shepherd explained that he needs an intimate knowledge of each of his hundreds of sheep. He needs to know how they will respond and what triggers particular behaviours, which of his sheep prefers to lead and which to follow, which sheep will panic and which won’t.

His primary task is to keep his flock safe and together. But he also needs to force them into the dip where the liquid will burn their eyes and get into their noses and mouths and scare them. He needs to do this to know that his sheep will be safe from parasites and disease.

Much about leading people is fuzzy, grey or ambiguous. What is not ambiguous is that people join organisations, but leave because of bad managers. “For most employees, their emotional experience of the organisation is their experience of you as their leader.”

Since almost everyone will be a leader at some moment in their lives, whether at work, home or socially, leadership needs to be understood. Ashton concludes his book with a set of seven personal leadership questions that deserve the attention of all leaders who want to up their game for the benefit of those they lead and the organisations they serve.

Readability: Light --+-- Serious

Insights:                  High -+---- Low

Practical:                 High -+--- Low

 - Fin24

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy.

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