• 10 Jul 2007
  • What Do You Think?

How Much of Leadership Is About Control, Delegation, or Theater?

Forum now closed. Summing up the many responses, Jim Heskett says that the mix of control, delegation, and theater employed by successful leaders depends on timing and circumstances. "The strongest messages I received were that if leadership involves control, it is only over setting an organization's course and priorities."
by Jim Heskett

Summing Up

Summarizing this month's rich stew of comments regarding leadership is a hazardous task. The subject is far too complex for four paragraphs. So please bear with me. The strongest messages I received were that if leadership involves control, it is only over setting an organization's course and priorities. As Brady Finney put it, "… companies growing value the most are the ones with leaders that have a clear vision, continually communicate that vision, and then get out of the way …." On the other hand, theater plays a role. Grant Koster reminds us that " … as a leader, you are always on stage … being watched, analyzed, and interpreted." But as Adam Lawrence, an actor, warns us, " … acting, or theatrics, is never about pretending to be something you are not." Combining these ideas, Sharika Kaul commented that " … like a movie director the leader incites, excites, and pushes the team or, you could say, choreographs an output that (moves) the company towards the vision."

The mix of control, delegation, and theater employed by successful leaders depends on the timing and circumstances…when and where. As Sandra Worsham says, "A blend of theater and control is required to make people feel comfortable when fundamental operating systems change …." Narendar Singh Raj Purohit adds that "… when things are getting out of control … someone has to take initiative to give a positive pep-talk and in many cases perform a theatrical leadership act, and this I believe is not deception." Karen Dempster comments that "I completely believe leaders all use a form of theatre, even quietly, to express and create hopefully a calm, delegated form of control …."

Just how the importance of leadership in an organization's success, whether 10 percent or something else, can be measured is a puzzle. Gerald Nanninga commented that " … (the) 90 percent which is attributable to the 'environment' fails to take into account (the) fact that somebody somewhere made some decisions which put the company into (or failed to get them out of) that environment …." Ann Brown asks, "How long would it take for the results of consistent leadership actions and 'action messages' to show in the bottom line?" Steve Mosley suggested that the value of 10 percent shouldn't be underestimated in pointing out that " … if firms that emphasize developing good leadership drive an extra 10 percent premium in EPS …, I think most CFOs and CEOs would salute those results."

Several shifted the topic (or did they?) to followership, suggesting an interesting set of questions. Ian Plowman initiated this line of thinking in his comment: "So is leadership about control, delegation, or theatre? It could be all three, or none of them. The answer lies in the projections of the potential followers." Ken Hedberg said, "You can tell who the leaders are by watching who has followers." Paula Cobb asks leaders to assume, in sessions she facilitates, the role of followers. She observes that, in her work, "even … leaders (agree) that when they are a follower they would rather commit than comply." Apparently speaking as a potential follower, Wale Olawore says, "Talk about leadership? I see one who wants to lift me up and help me achieve my desire in life." Ed Hare asks, "… why doesn't anyone write on the subject of 'Followership'? Maybe aspiring 'leaders' would learn more if they understood how those they are charged to lead really saw the role of their 'Leaders.' Maybe we have the subject upside down." Could we learn more about leadership by studying followership? Is leadership really about followership? What do you think?

Original Article

The flood of writing about leadership continues. It reflects our fascination with what many believe to be the most important influence on organizational performance. In a thought-provoking book published last year, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton suggest that the overriding impact of leadership on performance is a myth, or at least only a half-truth. 30 years ago, in reviewing research on leadership, Pfeffer concluded at that time that actions of leaders most often explain no more than 10 percent of performance. Such things as a company's operating environment, the economy in general, or its long-run success or failure account for more of its current performance.

Findings published since then have done nothing to change Pfeffer's mind. But he also concludes that it may be quite important for leaders to perpetuate the myth of having significant control over performance. As employees, we expect it of our leaders. In our behavior, we defer to leaders. And that reinforces their tendency to act like what we expect of leaders. According to this line of thinking, it may require that a leader act out the role, concealing real feelings in the process. In short, it suggests that some part of leadership is theater that perpetuates the half-truth that leaders are indeed in control.

Theater may take many forms. For me, the image of General George S. Patton stepping in front of a huge American flag to deliver a stirring speech, whether it really happened or not, is carefully staged theater. When he was commissioner of the New York City Police Department, Bill Bratton staged a public event in front of many members of his force in which he permanently retired the badges of several members of his department who had committed a crime "so that no other member of this department will ever have to wear them." When asked about leadership challenges, Andy Grove, legendary former CEO of Intel, once commented: "Well, part of it is self-discipline and part of it is deception—deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. But after a while, if you act confident, you become more confident. So the deception becomes less of a deception."

Some leadership theater is unplanned, but it requires the right reflex action on the part of the leader. For example, I once observed Bill Pollard, then CEO of ServiceMaster, spill a cup of coffee at a board meeting at the company, one offering cleaning services whose leadership had long advocated "servant leadership." Without hesitating, he asked an associate to get him some cleaning materials and proceeded to get down on his hands and knees to soak the coffee out of the carpeting while his board of directors stood watching. No one commented on what was happening. It seemed taken for granted that it was a demonstration of what a leader should do in that case.

It may be important for us to believe that our leaders have control over performance, whether or not it is true, particularly in times of turmoil or concern about the future. So to what degree should leaders become thespians, creating an impression that fits expectations? How does one do this and still maintain some sense of modesty and perspective that Jim Collins, in his research, has identified with the most effective leaders? Is some part of leadership about creating the myth of being in control while subtly transferring it to others in the organization? Or, as Pfeffer and Sutton ask, "Should leaders be in more complete control of their organizations?" What do your personal experiences lead you to believe about these issues? What do you think?