Combined Arms Consulting

Leadership Starts With You

Sir John Monash

Published: 06 Feb 2024

5 min read

Leadership Starts With You

Leadership is a term often used, and a position often aspired to, but what is leadership, real leadership and how does it permeate within the corporate environment and more importantly where does it emanate from?

Leadership as a discipline is a relatively new phenomenon. In the recent past what determined who would become a leader was generally based on wealth, lineage, and status. Leadership progression based upon merit was the extreme exception rather than the rule. There were notable exceptions George Wahington being one, however, his progression and the progression of his fellow revolutionaries were more a reflection of the new society they were creating, breaking the old-world models.

The old-world models of leadership progression have not disappeared in the 21st century if one considers societies such as North Korea or Syria. As the leadership culture tends to be eliminated from the top, the lack of a competitive industrial platform within these societies it can be argued is emblematic of a top-down paternalistic approach. This is supported by work undertaken by Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory.

This approach is not unique to autocratic societies, over 70% of businesses in the Western world are family businesses and in many cases, the succession progression in these businesses is based on blood, not competency. In the context of a family business, the “blood-focus” is understandable however this approach does not guarantee future continuity or success.

It may in the short term facilitate family harmony, but many succession plans fail. Doctoral research undertaken by Dr Leon Levin found that the least effective leadership model in family businesses during and post-succession was where the succession decision was based on family lineage solely.

So how does one become an effective leader, where does the leadership transition begin?

If you cannot lead yourself then it is hard to expect any “leader” to be able to effectively lead others. Before you even try to lead yourself, you must understand what you stand for and what you believe in and build upon that foundation. This is harder than it sounds and takes much self-reflection and personal honesty.

Understanding what drives you and what is the motivating force behind your actions is best exemplified by Victor Frankel in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Frankel observed that even in the dystopian world of Auschwitz, where he was incarcerated for over 2 years, those who lost what defined them, and what they believed in i.e., their purpose, had the worst chance of survival. Their inner core was destroyed.

One hopes that Frankel’s experiences are not experienced in the corporate boardrooms of the West, but the principle stands. Define yourself and your mission, that will give you the north star upon which to build your corporate (and personal) decisions. Adherence to this sense of self will ensure that you are an authentic leader, in adherence to your set of values, maintaining a constant ethical pathway. And like-minded people will gravitate to you.

This need for self-exploration and definition is ever more so important in today’s world, due to the proliferation of social media and the panoply of different “fact” and Identity” sources that we are all bombarded with every waking minute. The social platforms of the 21st century are the new bully pulpits which amplify the plethora of new and evolving identities that now are embedded in the social discourse.

Yascha Mounk’s recent book “The Identity Trap” explores the ever-growing range of identities upon which individuals seek to anchor their sense of self. That said leaders must stand for something and must create a coherent and focused direction in how they deal with corporate decision-making and problem solving. Trying to be all things to all “identities” ultimately leads to leaders representing nothing.

Leadership must not be based on popularity; it must be based on core values and ethics. In today’s social media-based world, many people are waiting to be offended, the emotional haemophiliacs brigade, who tend to dominate the social and corporate discourse, bellowing the loudest and crowding out the silent majority. Leadership must overcome this noise and stand up to the vox populi if the situation warrants.

This takes self-assurance. Wavering from this inner locus of control can have a corrosive effect on decision-making generally and creativity and problem-solving specifically.

John Cleese a warrior against political correctness and its effect on creativity noted that not only does the fear of offence stifle creative debate, but it also castrates creative thought within, a form of self-censorship, i.e., should I say it or should I just be quiet?

One of leadership’s core missions should be to challenge the status quo by pushing back against what is currently accepted creatively and productively with the hope that something better will evolve. This will create friction and, in many cases, “offence”. However, the evolution of Western thought is predicated on “offence” as represented by some of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, John Locke, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and others.

They were offending the status quo, to moving forward. One should consider that without intellectual and ethical leadership the world would be a much less interesting place today. The modern leaders and thinkers in today’s world must take up the mantle of these intellectual leaders and take on the challenge.

Leadership can be a lonely and thankless task, but it is rewarding and if based upon real values and an ethical framework incredibly nourishing for the soul.