By: Barry Nazar, DPA
It is inevitable that social workers will be pressed into leadership roles. They get appointed to positions of responsibility. They initiate community projects. They coordinate teams of stakeholders on behalf of clients.
Leadership is not usually an explicit part of the social work curriculum, but many of the skills transfer aptly to leadership roles. A basic understanding of the nature of leadership can provide the presence of mind to bring these skills into play.
Organizations and groups require a leader. It’s almost as certain as a law of physics. Whether the group is a formal organization or an informal social group, it must have a leader. Formal organizations have this built into their structure. Informal groups will establish a leader nevertheless, even in the absence of a pre-established structure. If they fail to do so, the group usually falls apart. And that is a major clue to the functional role for a group leader—to guide the processes that allow a collection of individuals to operate as a coherent group.
There are many misconceptions about what is essential to effective leadership. Most misperceptions derive from observing the “trappings” of leadership. For example, some view it as a matter of wielding authority. That is, the exercise of authority is seen as the means to bring about cohesiveness. Whether used harshly or softly, however, this approach amounts to despotism. A harsh example is the prerogative of Roman generals to “decimate” their armies. If the army performed poorly, the soldiers were lined up, counted off by tens, and every tenth man was killed. A soft example is to establish rules or cultural protocols that stifle the expression of objections. Whether hard or soft, authoritarian approaches ultimately result in diminished capacity.
Some see leadership as a matter of creativity or intellectual competence. That is, the leader provides a vision or the inspired expression of mission that others will just naturally choose to follow, or at least restrain their own desires in favor of the leader’s objectives. This is a “leader knows best” model and eventually falls short because it simply “ain’t so.” No one always knows best. And, to the extent that organization members operate under the belief that the leader must have all the answers, that organization is diminished in capacity. You can spot this when organization members seem paralyzed from action until they hear what the leader determines about the situation. There is great loss of efficiency and effectiveness, because people are “sitting on their hands,” or worse, “shutting down their minds.”
A similar misconception is that leadership arises from charismatic personality and popularity, if not outright celebrity. Everyone wants to be associated with the favorable image of the leader, so they act obligingly in ways that support a cohesive group. There is a partial truth in this. To the extent that this approach to leadership includes the formation of friendships, where friendship is the understanding that people will act in each other’s best interest, this works. But to the extent that it rests upon upholding the leader’s image, organizations become cult-like, prone to groupthink, and not very adaptable to changing circumstances.
The crux of the leadership issue is resolving a fundamental dilemma: individual vs. group. An organization is at once a collection of individuals, but also a transcendent entity. The group is more than the sum of its parts. One of the seminal scholars of management, Chester Barnard, put forth an insightful definition of organizational efficiency. He stated [paraphrased], efficiency is the extent to which the purposes of the organization and the purposes of the members overlap. Although efficiency isn’t the sole objective of leadership, this definition goes to the core issue of leadership—that is, resolving the individual vs. group dilemma.
Process Dynamics of Leadership
When an organization or group sets out on a task, there are predictable phases that occur in the group dynamics. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman referred to the phases as Form, Storm, Norm, and Perform. He later added a winding up phase. Psychiatrist Sheldon Glass referred to the phases as Introduction, Resistance-Testing, Production, and Termination. Both agreed that the second phase, Storming or Resistance-Testing, is the critical phase for determining the mettle of the leader.
Let’s look at what happens in these dynamics. The outset of a new task or project begins with an introduction phase. There is usually excitement about new possibilities, getting involved, and recruiting buy-in. Members explore what the possibilities could mean for them. Some leaders fail to recognize the importance of a well-developed introduction phase and that any unprocessed issues will carry over into the next, even more critical, resistance-testing phase. Some leaders even deliberately curtail the introductory phase, because they believe they can minimize the fallout that will carry into the next phase. It’s not true!
The Storming or Resistance-Testing phase is where the rubber hits the road. This is the point at which each member grapples with the individual/group dilemma. They want to find as much overlap as possible between their individual purposes and the group purposes. Most members will realize that they can’t have it 100%, but they will press to get it as high as possible. The nature of this grappling is very circumstantial. Some members want to grow, take on new responsibility, and try risky roles. Others want comfort, certainty, and safe roles.
It’s a mixed bag. However ugly it might appear, what’s important to understand is that it is really all about individuals trying to align with the group in ways that they can be as fully committed as possible. If the purposes cannot be aligned, they won’t (cannot) be fully committed to the group endeavor. If the purposes are well aligned, they will (must) be highly committed to the group endeavor.
What is also important to understand is that these alignments of purpose are fashioned by role definitions, however explicit or implicit they are. Adjustments in this area require the involvement of the leader. Roles in a group are interdependent and require some level of consensus. Members cannot independently redefine their roles willy-nilly and remain as a group. Members can only adjust these things with the approbation of the leader. The extent to which members seek to enrich their roles depends on how strong they perceive the leader.
The Irony of Strong vs. Weak Leadership
If members perceive their leader to be strong, they will bring their resistance-testing out in the open. The stronger the leader, the more willing members are to express concerns about their roles, discuss troubles, push new ideas, challenge the status quo, and seek personal growth through the group’s endeavors. It’s not pretty sometimes, and the clamor is often misinterpreted as something going wrong. If the group perceives its leader to be weak and unable or unwilling to handle resistance-testing, the members hold back. Opportunities are foregone, although everything appears okay. The issues, however, do not go away. They go underwater and loom beneath the surface. Often, in the midst of the production phase, things mysteriously crack up. It is usually blamed away on something or someone, but rarely traced back to the tacit, undiscussable, agreement to avoid raising troublesome issues. Poor leaders often look good on the surface because members hold back their concerns, but poor leaders also have a portfolio of projects with nasty surprises or mediocre performance.
When you are a group leader, and you do not see any resistance-testing from your team, beware. As the old adage goes, the going seems easy when you’re going downhill. There are some signs to watch for in addition to the lack of resistance-testing. You have an employee who seems happy, committed, loyal, and he/she suddenly takes a new job with no apparent gain in career. You have projects in which good news is reported with alacrity, but bad news is delayed, minimized, eased in, covered over, or rationalized away. In discussions with staff, everybody agrees with you. Or if they sometimes disagree at first, they readily reverse themselves on the scantest provocation and never bring it up again. When meetings are over, people scatter quickly rather than seeking out follow-up discussion about the issues. Projects that look like they’re running perfectly suddenly and mysteriously blow up. People in the group fail to establish genuine friendships. Although some of these things could be brought on by a bad employee, if they happen with any regularity, look in the mirror.
Improving One’s Leadership
What to do? First, remember that the leader does not have to be the smartest, most creative, charismatic, genius with all the answers (such a one is doomed to poor leadership). The reason for having a group is so there are multiple talents to summon. The leader does, however, have to manage the “process” issues of group members. These will often be disguised as content issues. For example, members may claim that a certain intervention doesn’t work, when in fact they really may be concerned that they can’t pull it off. These are very different issues, and the only way to separate them is to make it safe for the other person to fess up about what’s really bothering him or her. You could prove to all that the intervention does work, but guess what! It’s still not going to work in your organization if members secretly believe or know they can’t do it.
The ultimate irony of leadership is that when members challenge and give you objections, it is actually a compliment. They are saying, “I think you are capable, and I trust you to handle this.” It may not feel like a compliment, but it is, so treat it as such and encourage your staff to do it often. Don’t snap at people when they bring troubling news—smile and thank them. Avoid jumping to conclusions. If you render quick judgments on information, staff will learn to “shape” that information in anticipation of your judgments. And “shaped” information is adulterated information. It’s better to be open-minded about interpretation. Consider that your staff or team are really volunteers. Yes, volunteers! You can pay them for physical work, but they volunteer to give their minds.
The one final, and maybe most important, thing you can do to strengthen your leadership standing is to convey that you have the best interests of others in mind. It will work wonders and it will compensate for any number of other shortcomings. But...you cannot fake this.
Barry Nazar, DPA, is Senior Research Associate at Temple University Harrisburg NEST (Nonprofit Evaluation Services and Training Center).