Leadership – Balancing the Circles

Every leader finds themselves living and working concurrently in three concentric circles, each of these circles fitting within the other. The central circle is the circle of ME. This is the individual leader themselves and the part that most leaders would be most familiar with. The second circle is the circle of US – leadership is generally a team sport and this circle is the team that the leader is a part of. Finally the third – outside circle – is the circle of WE. This circle represents the organisation which the leadership team leads and of which the individual leader is a part.

Each circle represents a set of both responsibilities and obligations but also legitimate rights and needs. The challenge of leaders is to balance these rights and responsibilities, these needs and obligations. In organisational leadership however the most important thing to understand about the flow of these rights and responsibilities is that they flow from the centre outward – from the circle of ME, through the circle of US to the circle of WE. This is best summed up (as we have seen previously) in the legal responsibility of directors to “act in the best interests of the organisation”.

Since this flow is from the centre out leaders need to ensure that all their actions and decisions reflect a primary interest in the organisation – and not either purely personal or team interests (the ME and the US). This is where the two principle tools of leaders – strategy and governance – begin to play an important role.

In brief strategy and governance are critical since by properly utilising them as leadership tools they can keep the leaders focused on what their role in the organisation is all about. They focus attention on the two aspects of direction and movement. Strategy determines direction, governance enables movement. Without a robust strategy no destination is defined and no direction is possible, without governance no structure is designed, no controls and systems are put in place and, like an amoeba, not much movement is possible. Strategy is about going places; governance is about doing so in a responsible way that does not leave anyone behind. Strategy is about what we want to achieve, governance is about how we actual do it. Strategy is all about purpose, governance is all about cohesion.

One of the most unfortunate things in organisations is the way that organograms are drawn! A typical organogram looks very much like a triangle with everyone knowing that the further up the triangle one progresses the more authority one has and generally the better paid one becomes. Leadership ambition is then all about climbing up the organogram as quickly as possible. This picture is unfortunate since it does not actually illustrate the dynamic of leadership.

Another emerging model is that of the servant leader – all this tends to do is turn the organogram on its head! Whilst this type of picture is very relevant especially when addressing public and state sector organisations – whose leaders are defined as civil servants – again it does not properly display the dynamic of leadership.

Yet another leadership model seeks to flatten the hierarchy – again often due to an honourable desire to recognise that value should not always be defined by ones position in the organogram. This is often a strategy of professional service organisations whose members operate as a group of equals more than as subservient to one another. The picture that best illustrates this type of organisation is a horizontal straight line. But again the dynamic of leadership is simple not fully illustrated in this picture.

I have used the phrase the “dynamic of leadership” in the last few paragraphs for a purpose -to emphasise the point that leadership is dynamic and not passive. While this may sound obvious unfortunately the way we conceptualise our organisation does not leave room for this. Dynamic means moving and active – unfortunately our conceptualisations of the organisations are often passive and static – triangles and straight lives.

I would propose another illustration for an organisation that better illustrates what I am wanting to emphasise – an arrow head moving from left to right across the page (since for the western world this is the direction that our thinking progresses).

Leadership implies movement, movement implies direction. A moving leadership creates a vacuum in its wake – the organisation should be drawn into the vacuum as it follows the leadership team. This vacuum is another way of conceptualising the “organisational space” spoken about earlier. The responsibility of the leadership team for the organisation does however create a multi-directional focus for the team. It needs to be able to both look forward – in the direction it is moving, and look backward – to ensure the organisation is following its lead. Without followers a leader is not really a leader! The twin tools of strategy and governance are related to this multi-directional focus – strategy tends to look forward in the desired direction, governance tends to look backward to the structural elements and cohesion of the organisation.

So leaders can start to examine their leadership by asking a few critical questions;

  • If leadership is defined by having followers then who is actually behind you?
  • If leadership is about movement and direction then are we moving and do we have a clear direction?
  • If our organisational needs to be more like an arrowhead and less like a triangle what implications will that have on the way we view the authority structure within the organisation?
  • It we as a leadership team are no longer “on top” but are now “in front” do we have the requisite skills to look forward, move forward and create a vacuum?
  • If we as a leadership team need to continually assess the robustness of our structures and systems in the light of this dynamic model of leadership do we have the skills and flexibility to create structures that are robust yet flexible – and the ability to make changes as and when required?

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