Shortly before butchering his boss, Shakespeare’s Brutus was heard to say, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”. Sadly for Brutus, tides inexorably come and go, beaching their flotsam and jetsam. Such was the fate of the honourable Brutus and his co-conspirators, washed up and wiped out.
This idea of tides permeates the literature on leadership. Situational theory has it that different tides and times call for different types of leaders. A Caesar for some seasons and a Brutus for others. Thus organisations in disarray require strong, visionary and directive leadership – Churchills in time of war, but notably not in peace. Mind you, Churchill’s adversary adopted a strongly visionary and assertive stance too, although Hitler would surely feature at the extreme end of the narcissistic spectrum!
Which begs the question, well, two questions really. Firstly, do different situations call for different types of leaders or should approaches to leadership hold true regardless of circumstance? And secondly, how do ruthless leaders gain sway in the first place… and then what? (Yes, I know, that’s four questions.)
While these are not questions to be properly answered in a brief blog post, they are ones on which I’ve been doing some more sustained writing in recent times and so my abridged responses would be along these lines:
- To the first question(s), certainly circumstances may necessitate clear direction, decisive action and holding all to account. That does not, however, somehow override the need for integrity and ethical practice, and so certain elements should indeed remain as constants. Presumably history takes a far more favourable view of Churchill than of Hitler, not only because he was the victor, but because he is perceived as having moral, as opposed to immoral, purpose.
- The second is the more challenging question(s) and perhaps partly answered by the very first question. Sometimes circumstances are such that it seems that a strong, fearless, even ruthless hand is needed to pull things back into line. But beware – leadership plays a key role in the culture of an organisation and the quick win may prove short-sighted and have lasting toxic effects.
- Even harder to answer is the question about what to do about poor or unethical leadership once in place. Organisations are rarely democracies where leaders can be voted out. Alternatively, Brutus’ use of the dagger to silence Caesar’s ambition is hardly a modern option! Failing the leader gaining greater self-perception and self-control, the challenge to act lies with those further up the chain (depending on the organisational structure) or the followers themselves in concerted action. A hard ask for all parties.
Clearly, I have no neat answers to any of these questions although I see them as ones requiring attention. And so back to the tide: in many ways it’s quite reassuring to know that leaders come and go. Some will leave behind them a rich legacy; others their flotsam and jetsam.