Leadership and autonomy

First we needed management. It wasn’t enough to ‘administer’ an organisation, it was necessary to go beyond that – from administrator to manager, somebody who could not only keep the wheels of the organisation turning, but who also took a much broader view of the organisation’s aims, its effectiveness and so on. Strategic management was born.

Now, however, there is an expectation that we should strive to go beyond management to ‘leadership’. Leadership involves having a clear vision of where an organisation (or the section of an organisation that the particular leader has responsibility for) is going and being able to guide people towards it by motivating (or, better still, inspiring) them to achieve that organisation’s aims. While this notion has much to commend it, it also has its problems.

One problem is that many organisations lack clarity about what their aims are (we should not confuse a bland ‘mission statement’ with genuine clarity about aims!). If there is a lack of leadership at the top of an organisation, then it can make it very difficult for leaders at lower levels in the organisation to play their part.

Another problem is that many people appear to have a romantic notion of leadership, with charismatic figureheads leading the ‘followers’. Indeed, the term ‘followership’ is one that is increasingly being used in the literature. However, this is a term that raises some concerns. In my view, the idea that leaders lead and followers follow is a dangerous one. It can contribute to promoting a view of employees as people who uncritically and unthinkingly rely on the guidance of a ‘leader’ – someone who does all the thinking, the analysing and the planning, while the followers simply do as they are told. In other words, the romantic model of leadership and followership is one that discourages autonomy, reflective practice and critical thinking.

While the tendency on the part of some people to oversimplify leadership is a worrying development, the good news is that there is nothing inherent in the concept of leadership that requires ‘followership’. In fact, I would argue that leadership can, and should, encourage autonomy, in the sense that it should motivate people to perform to their best of their abilities – and that includes using initiative where it is appropriate to do so.

There are some jobs where all that is required of staff is to follow orders more or less unthinkingly. However, in a wide range of jobs, the scope and complexity of the work is such that a degree of autonomy and initiative is necessary. These are generally jobs that involve people.

Autonomy, of course, is not absolute. We all have constraints on our actions; we all have boundaries that we ignore at out peril. However, allowing people to exercise autonomy within safe limits is likely to be a much more positive and fruitful approach than one which involves imposing unnecessary restrictions. An effective leader is someone who has no difficulty with the proper use of control, but who does not become a control freak. One of the major skills of leadership is being able to judge when it is safe to give staff room for manoeuvre and when it would not be wise to do so.

A more sophisticated model of leadership, then, will not so much stifle autonomy as encourage and promote it. Indeed, this is the essence of empowerment, with staff taking responsibility for certain areas of practice, rather than simply following orders. Such a model of leadership will also have the potential to:

 – encourage clearer thinking and more creative approaches;

 – support reflective practice and continuous professional development; and

 – promote higher job satisfaction and morale.

We therefore need to be careful not to oversimplify what is involved in genuine leadership. We must be wary of allowing leadership to become just an empty buzzword, a fashionable concept which comes to be oversimplified and used uncritically.

What role, then, can training and development activities play in promoting a more sophisticated model of leadership, rather than one which fails to do justice to the complexities and subtleties of this important topic? The following comments will not cover all the possible angles, but should take us in the right direction in making sure that leadership learning is not compromised by too simplistic an approach.

 – Make the dangers of oversimplification explicit. If you are running a training course on leadership, make sure that participants are aware of the dangers of relying on too simple a model of leadership. This could in fact form the basis of a group exercise – that is, exploring what is meant by leadership and how it can so easily be misinterpreted.

 – Explore the boundaries of autonomy. What are the boundaries of autonomy in the workplace? How can judgements be made about these limits? What are the deciding  factors? These are all questions that can be usefully explored in and through training and development.

 – Establish the benefits of autonomy. Leadership development will be hampered if managers are too nervous to encourage autonomy and promote empowerment. It is therefore very important that they become aware of the benefits of autonomy and the heavy price to be paid if it is stifled.

 – Explore how autonomy and empowerment can be managed. Leadership is not licence – that is, it is not simply a matter of letting people ‘get on with it’. Empowerment  involves clarifying what is to be achieved, monitoring progress towards those goals, providing guidance and support where required and, sometimes, pointing out when boundaries of acceptability are being, or have been, overstepped. These are all issues that can be usefully addressed through training and development.

Effective leadership involves a number of skills – some of them at quite an advanced level. Training and development activities therefore have an important part to play in helping to promote and nurture such skills. If, however, such activities do not succeed in challenging oversimplified conceptions of leadership, then there are likely to be significant and unnecessary barriers to progress.

Further reading

Gilbert, P and Thompson, N. (2002) Supervision and Leadership Skills: A Training Resource Pack, Learning Curve Publishing (www.avenuelearningcentre.co.uk)
Hooper, A. and Potter, J. (2000) Intelligent Leadership: Creating a Passion for Change, Random House.

Dr Neil Thompson   

Neil’s website and blog are at www.neilthompson.info