Intelligent Leadership Questions

Six Honest Serving Fellows: A Framework for Collective Leaders?

A key theme of the Selfless Leader is that leadership is not the property of an individual but the property of a community of people. The role of the collective leader is to ask the intelligent question and enable collective others to help in determining the solutions.


Rudyard Kipling’s notion of the six honest serving men  is a useful starting point in considering the six intelligent leadership questions.  It is adapted within the context of modern day leadership in replacing ‘men’ with ‘fellows’ and an active ‘know’ rather than a ‘passive’ ‘knew’.

The ‘Selfless Leader’ suggests that the ‘who’ question was the dominant question for the OWLS and, in most respects, for the NWLs. The ‘What’ question emerged more for the NWLs, along with the ‘when’ and the ‘where’ questions, whereas the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions are more for the GWLs and thus, twenty-first-century leadership. We will now briefly discuss each of these perspectives.

Exploring the Six Questions

You can explore the six intelligent leadership questions (ILQ) as a framework for briefly exploring thousands of years thinking in relation to leadership.  This is the first of a high level use of the six ILQs which is helpful in exploring the progression of leadership thinking in history and through to the present day.  As you will come to realise if you follow the thinking and development of the Selfless Leader and the accompanying digital resources, you will see that it has many more uses both in theory and practice!

Happy exploring …

The individual leader is the main focus in the sense of ‘the born leader’ (great man theory) and their characteristics or traits. Historically, these early theories were about military and political leaders; leaders took followers for granted. A relationship between the leader and follower was less important; This relationship is changing as dispersed leadership is also important.

This approach is Intuitively appealing and supported by much research: As the earlier discussion illustrated, the fascination with ‘individuals’ as leaders have a long history: as long as life itself. Although the ancient historical accounts have appeal in themselves, the first real attempt to study the characteristics of individual leadership was that of Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) in his account of the ‘Great Men theory of leadership’ (Carlyle, 1852). This early theoretical perspective viewed individual leaders “as independent agents, able to manipulate the world at will” (Grint, 2005:1471). Carlyle studied leaders as widely diverse as William Shakespeare (the hero as a poet), Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Dante, Samuel Johnson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Robert Burns, John Knox, and Martin Luther through to the Prophet Muhammad. Grint undertook a similar task in examining (more recent, but, still historical) leaders, including Henry Ford, Horatio Nelson, Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King. However, Grint in his later work differed in his view and said that the context cannot be objectively assessed in a scientific form, arguing that “the context is not independent of human agency” (Grint, 2005: 1471). In this sense, Grint was arguing that leaders socially construct the way in which others view leaders; in other words, they, themselves, construct their sense of the reality, which defines the meaning that society then follows.

The focus on ‘who’ shifted in contemporary understanding in considering the traits that individual leaders (or potential leaders) possessed. Some have argued that this was a first attempt to characterise an effective leader (Bass et al., 2008). This argument may be true for the measurement of traits scientifically, but we also attribute our OWLs with traits.

Some theories then began to take account of ‘what’ leaders do and considered the links between task and employee, the leadership style of leaders, and forms of transactional leadership. Although leadership theories have existed for many hundreds of years, its rapid development from the early ancient and classic theories started to increase exponentially with the NWLs. Theories of leadership developed alongside the growing (and relatively new) approach to the study of organisational theories at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We can, perhaps, look to the latter stages of the industrial revolution to see these beginnings. Social historians have well illustrated the continuing ‘nasty, brutish and short lives’ of those who worked at the ‘coalface’ of the ‘modern’ industrial world. The management approaches of the day strongly influenced by Frederick Winslow Taylors’ notion of ‘scientific management’ with its focus on improving efficiency and Fayol’s principles of management (Fayol, 1930) has a key role in this thinking.

Attention gradually shifted from the ‘nature’ to ‘nurture’ debate, including shaping behaviours of people at work (Watson, 1930). We can also see a further reference to our term “brutish” when, in his earlier writings, Watson saw no dividing line between ‘man’ and ‘brute’ (Watson, 1913). The seminal ‘Hawthorne Studies’ marked a turning point in considering the role of human behaviour from both an organisational and leadership perspective. Based on a series of experiments in industrial history in the late 1920s and early 1930s, its original purpose was to study the effects of physical conditions on productivity. However, an unintended change (for the research) in the working conditions (lighting, working hours and refreshment breaks) was introduced (Mayo, 1933).

Leadership styles also emerged as an important factor and remain influential today. In 1939, Kurt Lewin, a psychologist, set out to identify different styles of leadership and identified three major styles; authoritarian (autocratic), participative (democratic) and delegative (Laisez-Faire) (Lewin et al., 1939). One of the most important contributions that Lewin made was to identify the importance of the situation as a whole in determining the exhibited behaviour.

The final aspect of the ‘what’ question is that of transactional leadership. A classic study is that of Burns, who studied the political, social and psychological dimensions of leadership (Burns, 1978). He was one of the first to suggest that leadership is less to with images of the good and great and its accompanying notions of power and domination but is more to do with a process of aligning with the consciousness of those led. He was making a distinction between ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ leadership. In the first (and in keeping with the traditional thoughts of this time), leadership is about one person taking the initiative (for example, in political elections as well as organisational settings). Burns argued that leadership is meaningless without its connection to common purposes and collective needs.

In conclusion, the ‘what’ is thus important but we should avoid thinking that there is a ‘one-best-way’ approach as it very much depends on both the context and the situation, an important feature of global leadership. The biggest warning is one that Burns made in arguing that (within transactional leadership) there is often a bias towards self-interests (or what Bass describes as pseudo-transformational leadership) (Bass and Steidlmeier, 1999). The leader purports to focus on the followers interests but focuses on the leaders’ interests in reality.

As leadership theories continued to develop, the importance of context emerged. There are two primary approaches to the early contextual theories, which are contingency theory and situational leadership theory. There is a tendency to consider these two approaches as if-they-were-one. While there are clearly some similarities, there are also some significant differences.

Time is part of the currency of leadership which defines the context. ‘When’ is a good question to ask. Task, relations and the right contexts form the backdrop to these approaches. Both contingency theory and situational leadership put the individual at its heart. However, contingency theory focuses on the effectiveness of the leader based on her individual leadership style and dependent on the situations that the leader favours, whereas situational theory relies on the use of a leader’s individual skills and his ability to lead in a particular situation. A key difference is that contingency theory focuses on the present situation whereas the attitude and behaviour of the leader determine a situational theory. In this sense, the contingent leader is viewed as more inflexible than the situational leader. Both approaches also have different assumptions about followers; contingency theory assumes that all followers will act the same based on the style of the leader whereas situational leaders assume that followers will differ in their responses dependent upon their particular levels of competence, commitment and maturity.

Contingency theory is influential (Cartwright, 1965), (Tannenbaum and Schmidt, 1957) as an organisational, rather than a personal leadership style. The first looked at the individual perspective based on the alignment of consideration (of people) and initiating structure (task) whereas the second study looked at the importance of group behaviours.

Fielder was the first to introduce the concept of contingency theory in the 1960s (Fielder, 1964). Similarly, the leaders task structure and leader-member relation motivations were prominent, but there was a third dimension, position power, all three mitigated by the preferred leadership style of the individual leader. Although somewhat controversial regarding the validity of its measures, Northouse (Northouse, 1997) reminds us that it has “made a substantial contribution to our understanding of leadership processes” ( Ibid:126).

The Ohio and Michigan studies influenced situational leadership theory, building on the work of Blake and Mouton in combining task and relationship behaviours (which they call directing and supporting). Four different types of leadership behaviour (Hersey and Blanchard, 1969) extended these; ‘telling’ (high directive/low supportive), ‘selling’ (high directive, high supporting), ‘participating’ (low directive/high supportive) and ‘delegating’ (low directive/low supportive). In this sense, it is the role of the leader to both reflect upon and adapt her behaviour for each follower’s level of competence, commitment and maturity.

In both cases (contingency and situation), leaders recognise when the right situations occur regarding task and relationships. However, in the case of situational theory, the maturity of leaders and followers is a controlling factor. Both approaches help to identify when to intervene with followers and provide insights about effective leadership in different situations and dyadic leadership relationships and have been influential in shaping approaches to flexible, adaptive behaviour (Yukl, 2009) particularly situational approaches. The approaches are intuitive and simple to understand and widely applied. However, there is not a huge empirical base concerning the extent to which leadership development focuses on these aspects nor the study or observation of the processes by which leaders behaviour influences follower behaviour.

Throughout the history of leadership, there is a close association between the ‘who’ and the ‘where’ questions. Both questions are appropriate in considering the OWLs and the NWLs. At a time of crisis, followers often look to positional leaders and evaluate their behaviour “based on whether they should be believed” (Allen, 2004). The role of positional leadership is thus critical to the reputation of the organisation. There is an association also between Power, legitimacy and authenticity, and positional leadership.

Power, as we know all too well, can be misused. There is a wealth of literature on the concept of power. Lord Acton (Acton et al., 1907) summed up the dangers well :

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.

Having power is the ability to influence outcomes and achieve goals, outside the realm of direct control, but not necessarily through one’s efforts. A leader’s right to lead, accepted by the majority based on a principle, rule or lawfulness, represents legitimacy. However, power without recourse or constructive debate can result in the sort of corruption to which Lord Acton refers. Corruption is not a property of the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Corruption emerged in many of the ‘leadership scandals’ of the contemporary time, such as Enron, and Mid Staffordshire Foundation Trust.

In many cases, the ‘position’ of the leader within the organisation provides the ‘authority’ of leadership (Grint, ibid). However, leadership can be either formal or informal or undertaken ‘with’ or ‘without’ authority (Heifetz, 1994).

The fifth and sixth questions draw in the GWLs. Studies about leadership have traditionally focused on the relationship between the leader and the follower. Contemporary studies need a more empirical approach to looking at how leaders fulfil their role and to take more account of the global context of leadership. This thinking views leadership as a shared and distributed process; intelligent leadership is the key to that process. Understanding leadership in this way is a relatively recent approach and, as Pearce and Conger describe it, our understanding “of the dynamics and opportunities for shared leadership remains quite primitive” (Pearce and Conger, 2003). Heiftez (1994) says that it is within the process of leadership that its effective evaluation can take place. Leading in a complex world requires both shared and distributed leadership and intelligent leadership sits at the heart of this (Brookes, 2011). The two terms are distinct but often used interchangeably. In a review of the literature, it is difficult to find a clear distinction between ‘shared’ and ‘distributed’ leadership. There is a distinction in that collective leadership extends beyond the traditional intra-organisational networks and takes account of the wider networks that exist beyond the organisation. Collective leadership in this sense is becoming more widely accepted (Brookes, 2011) and it is where leadership becomes the property of a community rather than an individual (Grint 2005). Collective leadership – through networks – is focused on shared beliefs, values and identities (Western, 2007).

Viewing leadership as a process holds promise and addresses the all-important ‘how’ question. In particular, by engaging with wider stakeholders, some benefits emerge. First and foremost, is that a leadership ‘community’ can mitigate the flaws of individual leaders (the ‘who’), the way in which they lead (the ‘what’) and the limitations of individual leaders position (the ‘where’). It can also take account of the best time to intervene (the ‘when’) and define the steps to take (the ‘how’). Pearce and Conger’s work about shared leadership has emerged as an important contribution to the leadership debate. They contend that demands on leaders have changed with a focus on performance improvement targets. Particular leadership skills include creativity and problem solving based on enhanced cross-organisational dialogue, including learning conversations. At the core is the acceptance of relational processes, as there is nothing that a leader or group of leaders does that does not involve relationships in one form or another. This collective approach to leadership is not easy. Business and public service are not undertaken between companies but between people. There is a need to address competing values, and it remains a huge challenge to get over the ‘WIFM’ factor (what’s-in-it-for-me). In such cases,

Whether people are open enough to say it or not, every one of us in every relationship or interaction is focused on a single question: ‘‘What’s in it for me?’’ (Bonfante, 2011: 83)

Both parties focus on the value they hope to receive from the potential relationship or interaction. The ‘how’ question is aligned with the ‘why’ question.

Responding to the question ‘why’ do leaders lead? Involves aims of inspiring, motivating or stimulating others to achieve a given end (Bass et al., 2008). Contemporary theory talks about transforming individual efforts towards a shared vision. To what extent can this be shared globally?

We briefly return to transformational leadership. Burns described transformational leadership as occurring when “one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality” (Burns, 1978:20) within the context of a ‘higher purpose’. In asking the ‘why?’ Question, this is important. Transformational leadership differs from transactional leadership. It is a new paradigm for the study of leadership. Research indicates that a transformational culture is more successful than a transactional one when measured against the organisational vision, information sharing, quality assurance, customer satisfaction, and working with others (Avolio and Bass, 1994).

However, a review of the literature invariably finds its reference again linked to the traits of individual leaders (for instance, with an emphasis on charisma and inspiration rather than integrity and consistency). Moreover, most studies are US based, focus on ‘distant’ leadership and ignore the impact of ‘nearby’ leadership (Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe, 2005:32). Respectively, Bass, Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe were influential in taking the discussion of leadership to the next level in understanding why leaders lead. In particular, the Transformational Leadership Questionnaire (TLQ) has been widely influential in supporting cultural change programmes focusing specifically on the nature of ‘nearby’ leadership (day-to-day behaviours of line managers) and the importance of engagement.

Collective leadership focuses on the alignment between both ‘distant’ and ‘nearby’ leadership. As Bass argued (acknowledged by Alimo-Metcalfe and Alban-Metcalfe), the “’founders’ and successors’ leadership shape a culture of shared values and assumptions, guided and constrained by their personal beliefs” (Bass 1998:62-3). Bass also said that what is needed is for leaders to promote and live a strong vision and a sense of purpose, based on long-term commitments and mutual interests and developing shared norms that are adaptive, responding to changes in the external environment. In a later seminal and influential discussion, Kotter refers to the need to transform individual efforts towards a shared vision (Kotter, 2012).

The Selfless Leader