Leadership Is a Leaking Tub

I like a good metaphor. Well chosen, it can make you see things that would otherwise remain fuzzy. It can shed light on a phenomenon in ways that make rational arguments seem clumsy or indigestible. It can help boil down a complex notion to a few striking components while not overtaxing the analytical mind. As such, they are well suited to serve as everyday maxims to guide our actions.

Leadership is one such complex notion that can be approached from different angles. We’ve all heard of the many metaphors for leadership: leadership as a gaggle of migrating geese; a school of fish; the art of orchestra conducting; a circle of inclusion; the iron fist in a velvet glove; and so on. They all shed light on leadership from a different angle and, as a result, they are all “true” in a perspectivist sense.

I have my own metaphor for leadership, which I imagine as a reservoir of goodwill. A tub, if you will.

The goodwill of people the leader serves is the primary fuel on which leadership runs. But it is a dwindling good. In a state of inaction, its level slowly drops. That’s because the tub is constantly leaking through the drain of ongoing expectations. One expects actions from leaders, actions toward a common good. A trickle of actions may not be enough to counter the drainage, while too abundant a flow may be wasteful. After all, a tub cannot be fuller than full. In other words, leadership should pace itself, while meeting expectations of progress.

Every time a leader scores a hit, the level of goodwill rises. Consensual decisions tend to maintain the level of goodwill. And a good hit through consensual action is a sure way to boost its level. On the other hand, authoritative decisions tend to open up the drain a bit wider and lower the level of goodwill. So, it’s something a leader will want to avoid. However, a visionary leader must sometimes drive a decision in spite of the prevailing consensus. That’s OK. If the outcome turns out to be successful, the level comes back up and beyond. In this sense, success is the best argument. People will support a successful leader in spite of her shortcomings. Conversely, they will reject failure no matter the leader’s qualities (think of Pericles during the Peloponnesian War).  So, it’s worth the risk, but it means you have to be reasonably certain that the outcome will be favourable, or else you risk running on low goodwill.

Now, I’m not sure how far we can take this metaphor, but I like it because it illustrates the idea of leadership as a function of groups’ willingness to be led (their goodwill) and highlights the consensual nature of leadership. At the same time, it allows for calculated risk-taking in key transformative moments, allowing to break free of group think, traditionalism, collective inertia – or any other obstacle to collective change – when needed. But if that’s the route you’re taking, you better make sure you know what you’re doing…

Donald Ipperciel

CIO, York University (@YorkUCIO)