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Tailoring Yourself or Tailoring Others?

In my humble opinion, when it comes to distinctions of leadership, I think most people have got it wrong.

It's not that their conception of leadership is wrong. After all, the truths of good leadership are ultimately universal. Where we go wrong is in the assumption that there is actually A SINGLE FORM OF GOOD LEADERSHIP, that there is something that is Good Leadership and, if we strive hard enough, we can achieve that rarified accolade.

It’s like we imagine that there is an Aristotlean space in front of us that we could eventually fill – Maslow’s Self-Realization in reverse!

I bet you $1million that your lived experience is that THIS IS NOT TRUE! That to lead a collaborative endeavour you need to modify and mould yourself to their requirements, their circumstances and only then what you are trying to achieve.

Most conceptions of leadership imply a rigid perfectionism that demands you to fit yourself into an abstract model to succeed.

The reality is that leadership is contingent and malleable and requires you to change yourself to suit the circumstances and goals. 

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As you can see here, I reckon there are essentially two axes along which our approach to leading people can sit: where is your focus and where is your attention. The point I'll be making is that it is horses for courses... you have to be flexible along these axes to be true to what's required and the people you're working with


Go back fifty years and the dominant (and idealised) model of leadership was past-based in that we valued leaders who looked to the past with a view to improving on it. This is still an extremely important model of leadership! If you want to design a chair, you don’t start from scratch to design a new human seating instrument, you look to what already exists and improve.

The preferred model of leadership didn’t really start to change to the future-focused model until the 1980’s when it really took off. A future-focused model of leadership looks to the unknowable future and puts a stake in the sand and says “we will change this!”

The future-focused style of inspirational leadership reached its apogee with the boom where inspiration became more important than delivery. We learnt to idealise people like Steve Jobs, and now Elon Musk for their ability to inspire, often forgetting their immense capacity to also deliver on incremental improvement! The limits of this approach are now being highlighted with great clarity with the saga with Elizabeth Holmes and the collapse of her unicorn business Theranos, recently represented in the movie The Drop Out. 


The second vector of a flexible leadership approach is Attention: where is it? Do you look inwards at your own knowledge and expertise or outwards at where others are at? Again, both are important… but that’s the point – BOTH of them are important!

The dominant narrative on what is 'good' leadership right now claims that a focus OUT is better. Look to others first. Don’t get me wrong, there is not enough of this in the world… but depending on whom you are working with and on what, it is not always the best approach.

Most people I work with work in or with bureaucracies, and often in engineering-heavy industries like water. In these cases, it is my experience that the idealisation of ONE MODEL of leadership as ‘good’ leadership not only undervalues the skills of many people, but also their ability to effectively deliver consistently and at a high quality.

It’s not that one or the other approach is better, my point is that we need to be flexible in identifying what approach is best in the circumstance, and also where our natural strengths lie… and work from there.

In my view, leadership is like the condiments you put on your toast sometimes what you need is jam… and sometimes it's vegemite.

If you are interested in learning more, I've still two sessions left of the Collaborative leadership Masterclass. If you want to come along they are free, 1 hour and chock full of collaboration distinctions. You can register into one them HERE.


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