Opinion: Take me to your facilitator

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These are trying times for leaders. If they do not deliver strong leadership, they are blamed for any shortcomings that result, and if they do, they are criticised.

Indeed, there is a strong belief that the final years of the Eighties saw the demise of the whole concept of strong individual leadership in both political and business life. While we are swift to blame the Eighties leaders for being too directive, we are equally swift to blame their successors for being too indecisive, too malleable, too grey.

Is there a middle road to follow? Or have we, as followers, become too sophisticated? Alternatively, do we expect too much?

Either way, we successfully place our leaders between a rock and a hard place, and, given the state of the opinion polls, few political leaders seem to be able to overcome that particular dilemma. Business leaders and managers face the same dilemmas, albeit on smaller and less public stages.

Yet if the concept of leadership is dead, why is there such persistent preoccupation with those waiting in the wings? Successor spotting is being raised to a high art as the media devote disproportionate time or column inches to those who will next occupy centre stage.

Are we simply in an inter-regnum? Are we, in fact, yearning for the return of strong leaders who will solve all our problems and show us the paths to social and economic utopias? Maybe, maybe not. But we are preoccupied with the concept of leadership whether we like it or not.

And in business life, the time for a new approach to leadership has arrived. A new set of talents will be demanded of business leaders in the near future, and, while leadership remains what you do rather than what you are, there is an urgent need for a new mindset to underpin the doing.

We all have a style of leading that we feel most comfortable with; for many this will be the old command-and-control approach. This just will not do in the future.

But it is not simply a matter of abandoning it for something else. The longer something is practised, the more comfortably it fits, the harder it is going to be to change.

The word of the future is "facilitation". Although it is unlikely to replace the word leadership in the management lexicon, it more fully describes the fact that tomorrow's leader must act to release the excellence and creativity in others. This would enable them to be better equipped to deal with the evolving nature of both the business opportunities and threats that will arise.

The role of the facilitative leader is to stimulate others to produce excellent results, and to do this a fine balance must be struck.

In order to find the balance, the leader will need to be clearly aware of the range of facilitative behaviours that will generate maximum effectiveness within the team. Strength lies in making the correct choice.

For example, at times it may be necessary to claim the intellectual high ground and state clear views about why something should be done. At other times it will still be necessary to exert authority - especially where there is either extreme urgency or extreme lethargy.

However, the type of behaviour that will be most in demand and the most difficult to exhibit is what I call acting as the "creative group catalyst". The leader's role here involves the stimulation of the team, albeit not in an overt way. As such, it may not come easy to the action-based extrovert.

Appropriate actions may involve helping team members to set their own agendas, giving feedback on their progress in completing tasks, rather than controlling the tasks, and helping members to explore issues. The main objective of the facilitative behaviour will be to enable people to be more creative, and as such will involve asking thought-provoking questions that stimulate discovery and change attitudes rather than dictating a course of action.

Of course, the facilitative leader will know when to give an occasional steer, but must have the sensitivity to know when not to dominate.

So, this is an easier role for tomorrow's leader? Not a bit of it. It involves acquiring the wisdom to think differently and focus yourself on your team as well as embracing further talents, such as strategic thinking, dilemma resolution and the values of integrity and tenacity.

This may sound like a lot of skills to keep in the balance, but in the end it is about being business-like. Moreover, the talents are founded on an attitude of mental curiosity that lies within most of us and can therefore be developed and perfected.

It may not be too fanciful to suggest that the Martian invader of the future will have to say, "Take me to your facilitator."

John van Maurik is author of `Developing the Leader in You' (McGraw Hill, £18.95).