Strong leadership: Does it really make a difference?

29 December 2016 -


Crises often lead to calls for strong leadership. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Tom Vine

In times of crisis, we regularly hear calls for ‘strong leadership’. Recent examples include the aftermath of the Volkswagen emissions scandal and June’s EU referendum result.

Indeed, after the Brexit vote, CMI itself called for strong leadership: “With the UK facing a period of political and economic uncertainty, strong and inclusive leadership is more important than ever.”

But is strong leadership all it’s cracked up to be? Every organisation is subject to multiple forces – politics, economics, society and technology – over which the leader has no discernible control. The leader, for example, has no control over labour laws, exchange rates, the zeitgeist or the speed of the telecoms revolution.

But these factors, and countless others, direct the future of the organisation. Indeed, organisations are driven and directed not by will, but by the environment in which they operate – a sort of ‘organisational Darwinism’.

A leader may believe they still have a discernible input in terms of how they interpret and/or react to their environment. But even here we face problems. Take decisions about recruitment or promotion. There is a tendency for people to be attracted to those who are similar to themselves.

Even in the post-selection period, recruits are subjected to pressure to conform.

This means, ultimately, that leaders are a homogeneous bunch. This, in turn, leads to stasis. So should we just accept the limitations of leadership? After all, many of the businesses highlighted for their strategic and managerial excellence in Tom Peters and Robert Waterman’s bestselling In Search of Excellence were in dire straits a few years after the book’s publication in 1982.

Leaders – political and organisational alike – are not, it seems, in control.

Interestingly, while cases of leaderless organisations are rare, they do show a common theme: Belgium, for example, went without an elected prime minster for a year and a half, and it didn’t seem to make the remotest difference to the performance of the country; worker cooperatives in South America – businesses without traditional leadership structures – appear to be flourishing.

The leader’s here to stay

None of this, however, means we should dispense with leaders, and there are three main reasons.

First, although control of organisations may be beyond the power of their leaders, the perception of control is likely to be beneficial to the wellbeing of subordinates. Leadership provides certainty and security for those lower down the ladder. Our fears of the UK descending into nuclear war are, at least in part, alleviated by the confidence that our prime minister has the diplomatic skills to prevent this.

Second, leaders make sacrifices on behalf of their organisation. As a result of the emissions scandal, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn eventually quit. Did he know about the deliberate programming to generate deceptive emissions data? Probably not, but he quit so as to enable the organisation to re-establish its reputation. A year on, the brand seems as strong as ever. This ‘strategy’ appears to have worked.

Third, as the late Alvin Toffler persuasively argued in his seminal book Future Shock, people can accommodate only so much change at once. Leaders can help to coordinate change and act as a buffer. For example, if a department is going through a painful restructure and, at the same time, the office computers are due for a system upgrade, an effective strategy would be to wait until the restructure has taken place before installing the new software. Equally, if the organisation is being rebranded, halt the proposed change to the menu in the canteen until your staff and customers have adjusted to the new brand.

These secondary changes may appear trivial but, as psychologists have long recognised, it is the cumulative effect of too much concurrent change that invokes anxiety.

In exercising a sense of stewardship, a good leader can minimise this.

Although there’s much evidence that leadership is ineffectual – especially as a strategic means-ends tool – leadership does still matter. The leader will probably be with us for centuries to come.

Dr Tom Vine leads a suite of MBA programmes at Suffolk Business School:

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