Contemporary theories on leadership, including “Servant Leadership” and “Transformational Leadership,” focus upon the interaction of the leader, followers, and organization toward the accomplishment of a mission. And at first glance (or even after years of consideration), this makes sense, and has led to a vigorous debate as to which are the correct foci and which of these factors (leader, people, organization, and mission) should be take priority over the other.
Mission-oriented leadership theories and practices can be effective, allowing leaders to shape clear pathways towards specific and, ideally, measurable goals and objectives. Pure mission focus, however, often results in the neglect of the organization, and the people and resources comprising that organization.
Organization-focused leadership, on the other hand, excels in developing structures and procedures to accomplish the mission with the available people and resources. Efficient process is often the result, but often either (or both) the mission and people are neglected.
People-centric leadership concentrates upon the needs, capabilities, and development of those people making up the organization, with many contemporary theories including “Servant” and “Transformational” leadership championing the empowerment of those people to achieve their best. The danger here, of course, is the neglect of mission or organization in the interests of that achievement.
Perhaps the most dysfunctional, yet sadly most common, of all leadership practices are those which are leader-centric. For sure, it is important for the leader to embrace opportunities for self-improvement, development, or even fulfillment; however, the danger of prioritizing the leader is the slippery slope to selfishness and careerism.
Regardless of which of these priorities is set, the result often is not true leadership but manipulation, manipulation of the lower-priority entities to achieve the highest priorities. Thus, a mission-focused leader tends to find ways to manipulate people and organization to achieve the mission. A people-focused leader manipulates the mission and organization to help the people. An organization-focused leader manipulates people and mission. And a self-focused leader manipulates all three.
Nor is the answer a neo-situational leadership theory in which these four different priorities are selected and interchanged depending on the changing climate or situation. Even if perfectly-balanced, such a theory is only an ineffective bandage on a serious wound.
Instead, I would like to champion what I call Virtue-Based Leadership, asserting that the correct answer to the dilemma of prioritizing mission, people, organization, or leader is “none of the above.” Instead, true leadership can only occur when the leader starts with a foundation of virtue – the identification of what is right and noble, the establishment of that virtue as the ultimate goal, and the constant striving for that goal.
Thus, instead of focusing on the mission, the leader must first evaluate and define the mission on its virtues. Rather than focusing on the organization, the leader must first identify then apply the principles of virtue to its structure and ethics. Instead of focusing on the desires of the people, the leader must help set virtuous goals in their development and care. And, perhaps most importantly, the leader must strive for virtue in his or her own life and actions.
But what is that virtue, how is it discovered? That is another question for a future article!
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