Most of us can probably think of an example of an organisational leader who had an impressively unconventional approach to their leadership role. This might be an example taken from our own work experience or it could be from one of the giants of the genre – the Steve Jobs or Richard Bransons of the business world. What is likely to connect these different examples is that the leader possessed a singular personality and approach to leadership, thereby making a unique impact on the organisation they led.
There is a growing interest in exploring a much wider application of these unconventional leadership approaches, with a drive to draw the unconventional towards the mainstream of organisational strategies. Proponents of this movement argue that modern organisational leadership must take a more radical approach to better reflect changing economic, technological, social and cultural norms that affect organisations and wider society.
One school of thought suggests that that much of what we know about current leadership standards has been formed from the historical hierarchical structures of empire. These were based on traditional conventions of power and control flowing from the top to the bottom. There is now a growing number of researchers exploring the growth, development and positioning of organisational leadership in relationship to the development of world economies, global empires and increasingly diverse cultural societies, alongside the way these topics impact on the way leadership approaches are conceived. Problems facing society today have prompted a perceived need for communities to take more control through greater engagement, more contribution and more participation – similar mantras to those of organisational leaders.
So what is creating this interest in more unconventional approaches? Certainly one argument would run that conventional leadership wouldn’t remain the norm if it didn’t produce the results that organisations are seeking. The counter to this, and what grounds many modern day management theories, is that a change in approach needs to happen to meet the needs of an ever-increasing pace of organisational change. Leaders must now engage in faster decision-making in an interdependent, globalised economy where the capacity to be creative and innovative will produce the greatest rewards. At the same time, employees now increasingly cite being respected, treated fairly, and involved in decision-making as critical engagement factors. As a result, the leader-follower relationship has started to change, with leaders encouraged to share (rather than own) an organisational vision. Under these newer approaches, there is still a designated leader but employees are involved in sharing a degree of power and become involved in making decisions, united under a common organisational vision.
This can be viewed as a move away from the traditional hierarchical power structures of many organisations, and is often linked with the impact of charismatic leadership. Such leaders are viewed as a force for change and innovation, particularly during times of organisational turbulence, with a noted connection between charismatic leaders and the positive perception followers have of their relationship with organisational commitment and empowerment. Charismatic leaders are thought to drive and support change through a willingness to take risks, while articulating a compelling vision and being sensitive to the needs of different stakeholders.
Arguably, a particular challenge is that the concept of leadership and its specific forms of control are ingrained within our mainstream thought processes, meaning that we are essentially programmed to associate a lack of leadership with an absence of order. As a result, attempting to apply unconventional approaches requires a level of risk-taking that is nearly inconceivable for most organisations and their leaders. At the same time, the growing complexity of leadership in modern day organisations is producing strains on what leadership means, how it can be practiced and how it should be developed to meet the current and developing challenges of the business world. In short, the need is only going to grow.
Understanding what constitutes unconventional leadership – in both theory and practice – is a considerable challenge, but one with arguably greater rewards, Without attempting to seek greater awareness of how it might be accepted, modelled and executed, there is a risk of returning to the comforts and wisdom of conventionalism.
Michael Castle, Executive Development Director, Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group (ADUKG)