Sunday 7 April 2019

Flashlight Leadership

There is enough and more that has been written about differences between leadership and management and about leaders and managers. There is also a lot written about the purpose of leadership and about how to become a good leader. All the literature available also offers great deal on different styles of leadership - servant leadership (not a new concept, introduced in 1970) is one that's been in-focus recently...a.k.a. has become a buzzword!

Here are my 2-cents on the subject of leadership, where I introduce another style of leadership - flashlight leadership.

At the heart of leadership is "sense-giving"...i.e., helping people around you to understand what's going on, what are they expected to do, what can they do, what should they do, where can / will all this lead to, and the "why" for all of it. 

To begin with, a leader has to make sense, following that leadership is about providing guidance, finding a way forward and sense-giving. However, anyone who can make sense but not help others do the same (by sense-giving) may be a good problem identifier and problem solver, but definitely not a good leader. Helping, guiding and, at times, pushing people in the right direction is the role of a leader. Role of leader is definitely not to make / add more followers.

Leadership is not about providing answers, it is not about solving problems - it is an empowering tool that allows people facing problems to broaden their reach and perspective, use collaborative approach and work on problems to improve their scenario at the very least. Similarly, flashlight is an empowering tool when people find themselves engulfed in darkness, not knowing where they are, where can they find a path and what obstacles lie ahead.

Although it is not always understood - leadership is neither a position nor a designation. It is an attitude, a mindset. Thus, it is not necessary that flashlight leadership shall be displayed by people holding top-of-pyramid positions. In a scenario where top-of-pyramid gets too detached from on-ground reality - flashlight leadership usually crops up amongst middle / junior management. Using their experience, along with their understanding of nature of problem, and gathering others around them for counsel - flashlight leaders are able to throw light inside a darkroom and find the hidden solution (or a way to the solution).

Keith Grint has an interesting take on this subject. According to him, different type of problems demand different kind of problem-solving styles...and leadership is one such style. Keith has identified 3 types of problems - tame, critical and wicked. Tame problems need good management, critical problems need a commander and wicked problems need a leader.

Tame problems are almost like everyday problems, regular problems, someone has gone through such problems before and thus would know the solution, don't necessarily need creativity of mind - only execution of the plan. For all such problems, good management will suffice. Good management will find the right person to solve the problem, provide resources as needed and ensure execution of proposed solutions to the problem that needs solving. The requirement is to find the right answers to the problems - role of good management.

Critical problems are more urgent in nature, and can be understood as a "crisis". In such problem-scenarios there is usually not much time available for thinking, discussing, searching for alternative options. It falls on the shoulders of person-in-command to think of answers, give orders and get people moving as she / he feels is best in that situation. The requirement is to be a quick decision-maker, as there may not be enough time to find the right answer - role of a commander.

Wicked problems are easiest understood as the ones that have no obvious solution. Think: global warming! These are complex problems, which may not solved without changing the environment they exist in. Such problems are typically not only new for the people facing them, but also people facing such problems may not know anyone who has dealt with similar problems. It is thus imperative for responsible people to ask the right questions, because the right answers are neither obvious nor necessarily available. Requirement is of collaborative approach, bringing experts from different fields together to address the problem - role of a leader.

One can now link the two - Keith Grint's take on role of leadership when managing wicked problems, and what I call as light leadership style. A single beam from light is often sufficient to give hope and courage to those who are lost in darkness. A single beam from light can help in sense-making, which is sense-giving. A single beam from light can bring people together, working in one direction, each person bringing a different ability-set and expertise.

It is possible that all qualities could lie in the same person - good management when dealing with everyday problems, commanding ability in case a crisis hits and flashlight leadership when people find themselves in abject darkness, not knowing what to do, where to go or how to find a way out of this darkness. Also, it is possible that different situations demand different leadership styles -  few options are shared in the cartoon below :)

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