Leadership in Context

The FIVE “Cs” of Leadership; An overview of the attributes of leadership


We all know people who are “natural leaders,” but is there really any such thing?  What is it about people who are recognized as effective in their own particular context that makes them stand out?  Leaders come in many varieties and are found in many settings.  Often the most influential people in the particular context have no official status or title, but have a certain something that makes them the person who gets things done, sets the priorities, are influences others disproportionately. What makes someone a leader?  We all know managers who are reasonably good functionaries, yet, in reality, have few management skills.  Likewise, we all know individuals who, with or without a formal title, can inspire others and stimulate results well beyond the norm.  The focus of this article is to look at those factors that contribute to leadership: leadership in context.

Outside of a formal title or official positions, what is leadership? The leadership acumen of people in even top-level positions, such as the President of the United States, or top military generals, is often questioned.  Did the President exert adequate influence to bring the parties together for a successful legislative outcome? Have the “top brass” of the military adequately set the tone for gender equality? Of course, there are many other examples of similar questions illustrating that we view leadership as something quite separate from position or rank.

What, therefore, are the key attributes of people who are effective at what they do and successful in leading others to share in and benefit from effective change? Perhaps more books and articles have been written about leadership than any other business- or community-related topic. So, to prepare this article I reviewed the library of leadership books and articles to see what common threads emerged. Interestingly, I found that most leadership articles and even complex models seem to focus on many duplicate and overlapping attributes.

The “Five C’s” of Leadership

What I found from researching and comparing the various models of leadership was that that the best leaders have a balanced leadership score card, which includes:

  • Commitment
  • Connection
  • Competence
  • Communication, and
  • Caring

Models of Leadership

Bradford & Cohen, Managing for Excellence

I reviewed a range of leadership books, their focus, and the models that many of them expounded. Some were simple and direct. For example, the time-tested, outstanding work by David L. Bradford and Allan R. Cohen in their 1984 book, Managing for Excellence, focuses on some fundamental criteria which, to this day, have proven to be essential elements for effective leadership. Naturally, their work contains much more, but two key aspects that are beautifully articulated are:

  • Heroic versus Post-Heroic Leadership, and
  • The leader as a Technician or as a Conductor.

The Heroic Leader” is one who believes that he or she must:

  • Must know all the time what is going on in detail within the work unit;
  • Must have more technical expertise than any subordinate;
  • Is responsible for solving every problem that arises within the work unit; and,
  • Is the primary person responsible for how the department is working.

Bradford and Cohen discuss two different leadership approaches labeled as the leader as a technician or the leader as a conductor. Ostensibly both approaches to leadership have their utility.  The technician leader approach can be effective when the leader truly does have greater knowledge than the subordinates in every facet of the work. This can sometimes be true at the production level or the bench level where the task are well-defined and there are people coming in to perform them that must be mentored.  However, in today’s climate of more complex working structures, it is difficult to impossible for the leader of multi- or cross-disciplinary working units to honestly have the deepest knowledge in all aspects.

These more complex working structures or expanded scope of management responsibility within the hierarchy, call for leaders who approach the work as a “conductor.” The conductor manager views their role as accomplishing the work through others. They focus on setting the goals and priorities, and ensuring that workers are supported and resources, but make no pretenses of being the lead technician.

In the three decades that I have worked with leaders as an organizational development, and conflict resolution consultant, I have seen more leaders flounder because they have failed to make the transition from heroic, technician leader to a conductor leader as they were placed in positions of higher responsibility. Ironically, even today, many workers in complex, diverse workplace settings, still expect and attempt to demand of their leaders the somewhat mutually exclusive expectations that the leader should be most experienced technician, and a conductor.  I recently worked with a group of professionals working in an extremely diverse setting that called for deep expertise in many complex areas. The staff complained in the same breath that they were “micro-managed” yet at the same time expected that their leader should be able to demonstrate to them that he had the deepest professional expertise in each of the many highly complex areas of the work.  The incongruence of their expectations did not occur to them until I walked them through the paradox and helped them explore just what they truly valued in a leader within their organization.

Malcolm Gladwell,  The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

In Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book, The Tipping Point, published in 2000 the former Washington Post and now New Yorker writer reviews, among other fascinating topics, why some people are capable of wider impact and influence than others. He points to three critical factors that seem to distinguish those capable of deeper influence and leadership:

  • Connectors;
  • Mavens; and,
  • Salespeople.

Among his many examples, Gladwell shares the contrasting stories of Paul Revere and William Dawes.  Unknown to many, both Dawes and Revere were tasked with a “midnight ride” to warn of the coming of the British.  Why then do we remember and glorify Paul Revere and not know anything of Dawes?  Gladwell explains the difference. Paul Revere was a gregarious person who connected with many people and was well known and well liked in the community.  When he set out in his ride he knew individually many people in the townships that he contacted. He made his contacts, and people liked and trusted him and responded.  Dawes? Dawes was an ordinary guy.  Dawes made the ride sure enough, but he really had no idea who to contact. Thus he rode through the deserted boroughs of New England and encountered few people, and even fewer responded.

Gladwell also identifies two additional key attributes of influence: The “Mavin,” who is someone who has deep knowledge of a relevant area and serves as a mentor and resource to others. He also identifies the “Salesperson,” who is someone with acute communication and persuasion skills. We will have much more to say about communication skills in future posts.

In my next posting, I will describe more leadership models and their criteria and conclude with a full discussion of Leadership to the Principles of the Five “Cs.”

Bruce MacAllister, J.D.,  Senior Principal


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