Ironies of Leadership (Ep 8)

An interview with scholar Keith Grint - Part I of III

By David Worley - April 1, 2019

One of the ironies of leadership is that leaders don't have all the answers and, often, need to reflect problems back to followers. This counter-intuitive idea and more, on this episode.


01:50 - Why scholarship matters.

05:10 - Keith’s varied employment experience.

08:47 - Carlyle & Tolstoy (for more see, Grint, Leadership: A Very Short Introduction)

10:26 - Leadership as a symbol for the times.

12:48 - Grint’s four big points from Arts of Leadership & Problems, Problems, Problems.

13:42 - Heifetz et all, "leadership is about disappointing people at a rate they can manage."          

16:12 - Enzensberger, "heroes of retreat."

16:56 - Grint on disappointing people.

17:51 - Retreat in organizations.

18:17- The responsibility of leaders to disappoint people at a rate they can manage.

19:42 - How promotion is tied to outcomes.

21:46 - Grint on day-to-day leadership.

23:20 - Leadership is actually about listening to people.

25:10 - Show summary - four points.        

Selected Books by Keith Grint
The Arts of Leadership (2001)
Leadership: A Very Short Introduction (2010)
Problems, Problems, Problems: The Social Construction of 'Leadership' (2005)
ZigZag  (Enzensberger - 1998)

David:  00:00  Hi everybody. This is David Worley. Welcome to the Groler Podcast. We often talk about leadership as if it is a clearly cut endeavor, one in which the leader leads and others follow. How complicated can this be, right? Well, if you have some experience in the trenches of leadership, you just chuckled a little bit because you know this whole endeavor of leadership is far from simple. In this episode we talk about the irony of leadership. What irony you ask? Well, the irony that the leader doesn't have the answers, that problems need to be reflected back to the only place where they can often be solved, at the feet of followers, and the often necessary reality of having to disappoint people from your position in leadership. Hang on for a truly novel perspective on this episode of the Groler Podcast.

David:  01:10  Hi everybody. If this is your first time listening to the Groler Podcast, you should know that this show exists to help leaders learn and grow. Most weeks we engage practical tips and insights into the "how" of leading, particularly in organizations. These types of discussions are really important for us all, but they are not the only thing required to continue to expand your capacity for leading. In this episode along with a part two and three that follows, we have the extraordinary privilege of learning from one of the very best scholars on the topic of leadership in the world. I will say more about Keith Grint in a moment, but let me first answer the "why should you care about what a scholar thinks anyway" question. Listen, I get it. When one hears the word scholar, it isn't exactly the most exciting opportunity for most people. They think of a monotone dry, overly theoretical dude in a tweed jacket, and to be fair, this is sometimes the case. But folks, if you are restricting yourself to only reading and listening to popular level leadership materials, you are really missing out.

David:  02:18  The fact is that many of our basic assumptions about leadership are not accurate. What flies for common sense is just often wrong and more times than not, the people who reveal these counter-intuitive insights are scholars. So it is my hope and intention with the Groler Podcast that we might mix in all sorts of different leaders. Some popular well known types. The people whose books you see at the airport bookstore. These are people you've heard of who have written bestsellers in the field of leadership. Without a doubt, these folks have an important contribution to our leadership diet and they often present ideas in an interesting and digestible fashion. I also wish to do lots of interviews with people you've never heard of. People who have and do extraordinary things every day in the trenches of leadership. These folks can teach us from their firsthand experience. Oftentimes these are the unsung heroes of leadership learning. They are the people that get it done day in and day out and are the people that you should probably pay the most attention to if you wish to grow.

David:  03:26  But there's a third category of people that are critical too, and these folks tend to be scholars of leadership, management and organizations. This is where the heavy lifting of thought development occurs. Think of it as your Brussels sprouts or vitamins necessary for good nutrition. They are the people that introduced those key ideas into your perspective. And hopefully as I find the right people and ask the right questions, you will have many Eureka moments. By that I mean moments when you say, "you know what, I've never thought about that before." So that brings us to our guest in this episode, Dr. Keith Grint.

David:  04:06  It is not an exaggeration or hyperbole to say Keith is one of the highest regarded scholars of leadership anywhere in the world. He is known for his sweeping perspective of how leadership is situated in our lives as humans, along with his insight into how endeavors actually function. Keith Grint recently retired as professor of public leadership at Warwick University in Great Britain. He previously has held chairs at Cranfield University and Lancaster University and was the director of the Lancaster Leadership Center. He spent 12 years at Oxford University as the director of research at the Said Business School and was a fellow in organizational behavior at Templeton College. Seriously, if I were to continue to articulate his roles and positions, I'd need to keep talking for another minute. But listeners, I think you get the drift. Keith has held critical scholarly positions at all sorts of major universities in the UK and Western Europe.

David:  05:10  But one of the things that makes Keith such a good scholar is that he integrates his learnings into real-world problems. He can do this because he spent 10 years in industry before switching to an academic career and has been variously employed in all sorts of endeavors. He's been an agricultural laborer, a factory worker, an industrial cleaner, a removals worker, a freezer operator, a swimming pool attendant, a postman, a clerical worker, and a part-time karate teacher. So don't cross Keith because if you do, he will karate chop you! He is the founding co-editor of the Journal Leadership (published by Sage) and the co-founding organizer of the International Conference In Researching Leadership. Keith has dozens of publications to his credit. I will attempt to add a selected sample in the show notes for this episode. But if you are interested in reading one of the very best scholars alive, check him out. So with the introduction to Keith aside, let's dive into the first of a three-part interview with Dr. Keith Grint.

David:  06:23  Keith, thanks for being with us. We really appreciate your time.

Keith:  06:28  You're welcome.

David:  06:29  So, you could study almost anything readers of your work will note the remarkable array of different approaches you take. I mean, I see philosophical, technical, experiential, historical, literary approaches in almost anything you write. And so clearly you have this broad capacity to engage ideas and to engage practices. So tell us why did you choose the topic of leadership? Why did that capture your scholarly interest?

Keith:  07:04  Well, that's a good question. I think partly it's because of the things you just talked about in terms of the breadth of coverage that [it] allowed me to consider. So you can, you can go [to] any time, you can go any place, you can basically take any topic in history or in contemporary life and to turn a leadership cover for that. So that's my excuse for doing it. I think probably the real reason I was never really interested in any one thing sufficiently in depth to be able to focus on any one thing in depth. So, I think I have this kind of magpie ability that I'm interested in lots of different things, but I do find that I get bored if I just look at one thing. So I think, so one of the reasons I became focused on leadership is that it basically has no boundaries. You can do what you like, when you like, and cover it how you like.

David:  08:03  Sure.

Keith:  08:03  Whereas just about any other topic you pick up, there would be a problem in terms of the constraints. I mean that also runs in terms of the disciplinary approaches that you can use for leadership. What I was always interested in is whether individuals made a significant difference in a kind of a psychological perspective, or whether it really was all about politics and sociology and economics. It was much more to do with the great movements of time and space and it was much more to do with social patterns and economic patterns than it was to do with individuals. And I think I've always been intrigued by trying to work out whether the way that history moves along is as a consequence of what Carlyle talked about in some of the "great men of history" or whether it's kind of Tolstoy's approach that actually what leaders do is they just act as a symbolic element and really individual leaders don't actually do very much. They're just kind of a vehicle for other things to occur.

Keith:  09:05  And I think the longer I've looked at it, the more I realized that it really is a bit of both. It really is that you have to look at the individuals and you have to look at the more structural features to be able to explain that. I think that kind of enigmatic aspect of leadership has always intrigued me, that it's never absolutely clear what explains what, nor is it ever clear whether individuals make the difference they have claimed or other people claim for them. Or, whether what we're doing all the time was rewriting or reinterpreting history to fit with the models that we've already got. So I think all of those aspects intrigued me. And the more I've looked at it, the more it seems that leadership and leaders act as a kind of weather vane for general conditions.

Keith:  09:51  So for example, at the moment everybody seems to be in some kind of crisis, whether in the US or Europe and just about everything seems to be falling apart slowly. What you normally get when you get that kind of deterioration is the move towards some kind of charismatic or strong leadership. I mean, it happened in the 1930s and it's happening now. It's not necessarily about left or right wing politics it's just about the desire for people, followers, to find somebody that will provide them with a solution to a problem which probably doesn't have a solution. So, what leadership does is that it acts as a symbol for the times. Whether it's generating the times or whether it's responding to the times is a secondary issue. But it just has always struck me that leadership in some senses, however defined, is just a really interesting arena that you can carve out.

Keith:  10:50  I mean, why I got into it in the 1980s, late 1970s, early 1980s is when I first looked at it, and at that point when I'm just becoming an academic there actually aren't very many British academics writing in the field. There are a few American ones, but there aren't very many British ones. So I'm a, at that point, young academic and I'm trying to work out what my space is. You know, where can I add to the field of academia? And when I began to write and look into leadership, I thought, well, nobody else is in this area. And it seems really interesting for all kinds of reasons. So maybe I'll just focus on that. That's basically what happened. I just fell in into this, into the swamp of leadership, rather than anything else. It was just happenstance as much as anything else.

David:  11:39  I've got a lot of great Keith Grint quotes, but one that I really like is from page five of the Arts of Leadership, which is a great book. Listeners should pick it up. And here's the quote: "one of the greatest ironies of leadership, for, while we traditionally look to leaders to solve our problems, it would seem that leaders are most likely to be successful when they reflect the problem straight back to where they have to be solved -- at the feet of followers." What a great quote, and one that flies in the face of what we often think about leadership. You go on to say in one of your academic articles around the social construction of leadership, which I will list in the show notes. (I'm quoting from page 1475 of Problems, Problems, Problems) you described the irony in more detail and you say that depending upon the leaders access to an ability to wield certain kinds of power, the reality of leadership is four-fold and here are the four things:

David:  12:48  Number one, the leader does not have all the answers. Two, the leader's role is to make the followers face up to their responsibilities. Three, the "answer" to the problem is going to take a long time to construct and it will only ever be just simply more appropriate, rather than "the best." And four, it will require constant effort to maintain. Now, Keith, what I love about this is it's so truthful. It's so right on in terms of really particularly challenging leadership scenarios. But like I said, it flies in the face of the way most people think about leadership. And so how might leaders bring their followers along towards this perspective?

Keith:  13:42  I think ultimately this is about leaders getting away from the heroic model of leadership where they're going to save everybody from a catastrophe. And much more to do with recognizing that one of the roles of leadership is, and I'm quoting Ronnie Heifetz or misquoting Ronnie Heifetz, is to disappoint people at a rate they can manage. So I think, let's just take as an example, one of the ways that Mrs. May could address the Brexit problem is to go on television and say, "sorry people, but I have to tell you this isn't going to work and is going to be a catastrophe. So we are going to have to stop this." Now what that does of course is destroy her career. And that generates all kinds of other aspects. But I think there's an issue here. There's a German guy called Enzensberger who wrote a paper, in the book called Zigzag, and he talks about this in terms of we should stop thinking about leaders as being heroes of attack and start thinking about them in terms of heroes of retreat.

David:  14:55  Interesting.

Keith:  14:56  Retreat is the most difficult military technique, but he says if you look at some of the most important changes in society, they are developed off the back of a hero of retreat. So one of the examples he uses is the end of Apartheid. And normally we would think about Apartheid in terms of the hero of Mandela and what he went through and how he led the country to a different place, and how good that was given where it was going to. But what Enzensberger also talks about is the importance of recognizing the role of people like F.W. de Klerk who was the leader of the white South Africans. And what de Klerk does is say to his own support base that "the time is up, our time has gone. And unless we actually agree to a democratic transfer of power, there will be a civil war and we will lose it. So, I am now telling you that we are done as a system of Apartheid. That time is done and we have to transfer to a democratic system and lots of our privileges will go. But that's what we have to do."

Keith:  16:03  Now, that of course ruins his reputation with his white support base, but it enables South Africa to transfer to a different system peacefully. What Enzensberger is talking about is it's not just about heroes like Mandela, although sometimes we do need those, it's also about the heroes of retreat. The people who say to their followers, you have to do something now, which you are not going to like, but my job is to make you face up to a difficult decision that you have to make. And it's the equivalent of thinking about things like climate change. So the role of leaders in climate change, I think, is to be able to tell people not just that we have a problem that needs addressing, but everybody has to do something about this or there won't be anything to worry about because they won't be any of us here.

Keith:  16:56  So, that of course might entail requiring people to take decisions which are going to damage their own economy or their own personal life. And that I think, is a really important aspect of leadership. It's this disappointing people, which is an important element, and I think we lose that if we just stick to the notion of leadership as heroes.

David: 17:18  That's fascinating. You can see why, in part, we're in such a mess in the world with regards to political leadership based solely on what you just said right there. You know, to basically perform some of the best functions of leadership, a politician would functionally, at least in the climate that we're in today, have to sacrifice their own career to do so. As you think about organizational leaders, do you think that that is as delicate or challenging of a prospect, or what do you see in organizations with regards to really being conscious of that notion of retreat?

Keith:  18:00  I think it's probably more visible in political leadership, but it's also present in organizational leadership. So it's about telling people, for example, that you're going to close that plant down because there's no space for the plant and so it has to go. And that can never be an easy task. But it's the responsibility of organizational leaders to disappoint people at a rate they can manage. To say, I'm sorry but this has to go and we can no longer give you good news. This is just the way it is. And, I think, quite often we tend not to do that. We tend to shy away from telling people things that they don't want to hear because we don't want to disappoint them. But sometimes you have to. And I think that runs through all kinds of, not just societies and organizations, but in terms of families, you know, it's how you tell people the bad news that you don't want to tell them and they don't want to hear it, but your responsibility is to face up to this and say, "sorry, but this is happening."

David:  19:00  That's interesting. You know, I've been thinking a lot about the way in which a lot of times a successful career tends to be looked at, as a leader moves from one organization is there a couple of years and then does the next and the next and the next. And I think while on paper that looks really impressive, anybody who's really ever led anything recognizes how long it takes to create real change and to instantiate a culture and an organization with a truly new capacity. And so I guess I just wonder, do you think that our contemporary promotional process or our contemporary viewpoint on what we value in organizational leaders works against these four elements that you've pointed out as the irony of leadership?

Keith:  20:01  Well, one way of thinking about that is to think about the way different cultures reward people, reward leaders. So we know for example, the gap between chief executive reward and the average salary of an individual in an organization is much higher in the US that is in the UK. And the UK is much higher than it is in Japan or Germany. So either American and British chief executives are 10 times better than German or Japanese executives or we value things differently. And, I'm pretty sure it's the latter. That we reward people differently. And of course once you start to reward people, then those are the mechanisms that drive patterns of behavior and people think, well, the reason I want to be a leader is I want to get more and more money. So the thing that drives you is money rather than anything else. That's one of the issues you have to think about is, is whether the reward mechanisms and the things that we value are the things that drive us in the right direction or the wrong direction.

David:  21:06  Hmm. Yeah, that's a really excellent point that I think, at least speaking for myself, I don't know that I've stopped to think about the reward mechanisms in the organizations in which I've been apart carefully, but that makes all the sense in terms of what your outcomes are going to be. And then of course, back to the notion of social construction that also begins to grow where one organization is influencing the next. And next thing you know, you have industry norms, which are really nothing more than collectively held perspectives that are self reinforcing. And yeah, that's really good. Keith, in terms of when you think about your own experiences working with leaders, teaching leaders, leading yourself, what do you think are the most sticky day to day challenges that leaders face and what would be your best 60 second piece of advice to them on each of those sticky issues?

Keith:  22:12  Well, I mean that's a hard question. Um, I don't know. I think it's probably on a day to day basis, it's focusing on the small things. It's not worrying much about the big things because the big things will sort themselves out. It's a bit like saying, you know, the most important thing is the strategy for company Y or organization X and therefore we need to put all the resource into that. But actually, I mean there aren't that many different strategies for organizations to pursue. And by and large, it's pretty obvious what it is that organizations should be doing, however they do it, it's pretty obvious what they should be doing. And so, ironically, that's where often all the resource goes in terms of the external consultant support, but the actual mechanisms of the day to day management, that's much more difficult. And that's where there's virtually no support.

Keith:  23:05  So what we do is we support the things that don't need supporting, because they seem to be the kind of sexy issues and we don't support the things that are really difficult to do, like maintaining day in and day out the relationships that makes the organization function. And I don't think enough of us are self aware enough to be able to think that the first thing that you do or you say when you go to work every morning is the thing that makes a big difference. So, I still remember coming home from work once and I opened the door, my wife said "how was work?" And I said "it was all right" and she says, "oh, not very good." And I said, "no, no, it was good." And she said, "well, you didn't say that." I said, "well, I did." And she said, "no, you said it was all right." I said, "no, I said it was all right." And she said, "no. you said it was all right." So we had a two hour debate about whether it was all right, rising intonation, or all right, declining intonation. So it was a good day or a bad day and two hours later I'm thinking, I only used two words. How did we get in a two hour debate about two words? And I think there is something locked into that about we don't understand how important those really small things are to other people. This goes back to the kind of mundane aspects of leadership. It's the really small stuff that makes a difference. And I think if we get away from the notion that leadership is about telling people things and leadership is actually about listening to people, then you probably can't go very far wrong as a first thing to do first thing in the morning is don't tell anybody anything, just listen to them.

David:  24:41  Sure. That's a great tip. I would have not dug my own grave many, many times had I taken that piece of advice.

Keith:  24:51  Well, it's like the old saying that many marriages are saved on the basis of silence rather than actually saying anything.

David:  24:57  Totally! Totally!

David:  25:01  We will close part one of our discussion with Keith Grant here. Did you catch some of the critical points he made in this episode? Four, stand out to me. Number one, how do you as a leader, constructively reflect problems back to followers? This is the only place most sticky leadership problems can be solved, namely at the feet of followers. But in order to do that, we often need a sense for how to retreat from a situation. As Keith pointed out, this is often damaging to your career and status. But on a broader societal level, isn't this exactly what we need from our leaders?

David:  25:40  A second key issue is the capacity to disappoint people at a rate they can manage. This is a reference to both Keith's work and that of Ronald Heifetz and others. Consider this for a second. Placing responsibility back with followers requires us to disappoint, but we need not disappoint all at once. We can pace the change.

David:  26:02  A third point that stood out to me, was Keith's insight into how our promotional structures tend to disincentivize good behavior. This is obviously a huge problem in American corporate life, but one few want to talk about. On that count, how does your organization's promotional values serve what you really wish to see happen in the group itself?

David:  26:25  Finally, and you're hearing this from Keith Grint a scholar who has covered a lot of ground in his career of thinking, writing, and teaching, at the end of the day on the ground, you have to pay attention to the small interactions of organizational life. These matter because they frame our experience in big ways.

David:  26:45  If you liked this interview, stay tuned for the next two. Part two deals with a particular type of problem that we face in leadership. The technical term is a wicked problem. And in part three, we'll engage how language constructs our leadership reality. Finally, if you're new to the podcast, you can find out more about Groler at our website. That's G R O L E R dot com. On the site you will find show notes for this episode along with a full transcript. You will also find additional episodes that you may benefit from engaging. You may want to consider subscribing to the show. You can do that via the iTunes store or via your particular podcast App.

David:  27:25  You can also be assured that you will never miss a new episode by subscribing to our mailing list on the Groler website. Also, don't be shy in reaching out to talk with us. You can do that via the contact us tab at the top of the website. We'd love to hear your thoughts and hear what you're thinking about in order to help us better understand how we can learn and grow together. Also, don't be shy to tell others about this podcast. Let's grow the audience and grow the community that is learning together.

David:  27:53  Groler exists to help you learn and grow as a leader. So keep learning, keep growing, keep leading. Until next time, I'm David Worley.
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