If you ask google “what is the best leadership model?” you get a very disappointing answer. The answer google gives actually serves to confirm that no one knows what the best leadership model is. Worse than this, no one seems to have a clear idea of what our actual options are in the leadership space.
Global thought on leadership is depressingly fractured. There are no central themes on this topic. There is, rather, a cacophony of opinions that track current trends. Much of these opinions have merit and capture part of what good leadership is about. But, the debate is too noisy.
There are too many voices on the topic of leadership models
This diversity of opinion is confusing because we do not have a unifying model that captures the core of what good leadership actually is. Who should we listen to? Are there gaps in any of the models? What are the gaps?
It is difficult to answer these questions because we lack a single reliable compass. Too much of what is said about leadership is the expression of what leadership currently looks like. Right now, good leadership is virtual and is about psychological safety. It is about customer focus. About inclusion and employee experience. It is about high performance and producing results. Previously it was about something else. In two years, it is going to be about something else yet again.
But, if leadership is about all these things, do we have one story on effective leadership? Because all of these things are very different. But where then is the essence of leadership in all of them? And in a world where one of these things becomes irrelevant, does the essence of leadership change? Surely not. But we struggle to maintain our course because we do not spend enough time speaking from a core understanding of what leadership actually is. A core understanding that we can see as common in all of the thousands of models that are out there. This means we have nothing to measure against, no standard against which to prioritise.
How many models of leadership are there?
The first article that pops up, at least on my browser, when I google “the best leadership model”, is “7 leadership models for a powerful leader”. In this article the author lists the following 7 leadership characteristics:
It is strange to me that you would use the term “leadership model” to refer individually to each of these characteristics. If each of these is a leadership model, then there must literally be thousands of leadership models out there. Furthermore, they are all very limited and describe only one aspect of what a leader may be like in certain circumstances.
And indeed, we find that this is the case. Sergio Caredda did his research and produced a list of over 120 leadership models. This list is amazing. But, it does not even scratch the surface. Most corporates have their own leadership framework, so there are probably thousands of leadership models out there. Each leadership model tends to highlight behaviours that it deems are most essential to succeeding as a leader. And there is an infinite list of combinations of characteristics and behaviours to choose from. So we end with a colourful patchwork across the different leadership models.
What do we want from a leadership model?
Practically speaking then, all leadership models that adopt this sort of approach will either have to be incredibly complicated or will not apply to all situations. On any given day, a leader will have to oscillate between a host of leadership models. This seriously calls into question the usefulness of these leadership models.
The issue that all of these models are struggling with is that the behavioural spectrum required of a leader is massive. Surely a leader should be both charismatic, and ethical? Surely some times require democratic behaviour from a leader, and some times require autocratic behaviour from the leader. There will always be room for some degree of bureaucracy, but leaders need to enable freedom and room for growth. Leaders should be inclusive but have clear a standard of what is expected and consistently enforce that standard.
From a behavioural point of view then, leadership is immensely complex. With this complexity in mind, what we really want from a leadership model is focus and simplicity. A leadership model is supposed to distil the apparent complexity and multiplicity into a single variable. And then guide us on how to consistently act accordingly.
You need to go deeper than behaviour
If you treat leadership as a behavioural problem, however, then it is very difficult to decide which behaviours to include and which to leave aside. But there is a level of analysis that is deeper than behaviour, and that is intention.
In fact, it is not possible to understand behaviour without interrogating intention. We do say that all actions are by their intentions. In a court of law, the difference between manslaughter and murder is the intent of the killer. Both manslaughter and murder are acts of homicide; murder is deliberate, intentional homicide, manslaughter is unintentional.
We intuitively know this but we do not consider this variable when coming up with our models of leadership. Even servant leadership treats the problem as a behavioural problem.
The intent to give is common in all leadership model
The question to ask here is, what from an intent point of view define leadership? The answer to this question is deceptively obvious, it is the intent to give!
To see why this is the case we must remember that to succeed as a leader, you need to be good at getting people committed. A leader who is not able to get people committed to a task is not much a leader. The most exceptional leaders throughout history have been profoundly good at this.
And if you think about the people that you are committed to, it is clear all of them are people that you believe contribute to your lives. But, we do not become committed to people who make a contribution to our lives by mistake or unintentionally. We only commit to people who deliberately and intentionally contribute to our lives. We can see from this that it is not the person’s actions that earn our commitment. Rather, it is our perception of their intentions behind their actions. When we believe someone wished the best for us and will always sincerely act in our best interests, we become committed to that person.
This should be the starting point for every leadership model. The leader needs to reflect on her own intent with the people she leads. Are you really concerned about bringing out the best in them? Or, would you sacrifice them if it will make you successful? If, secretly, you are willing to throw them under the bus; then at some point they are going to figure out that you are not sincere with them. At this point, you will lose their commitment and will have failed as their leader.
Assad Schuitema is the CEO of Schuitema Group and responsible for oversight of global operations.
He is also a PhD candidate in the field of classical philosophy and is studying the applicability of classical philosophical ideals to the modern work context.
His work continues to rediscover the foundational themes that express themselves in all human endeavour and shape and define human collaboration.