Apply Now

The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

The Leadership Paradox


We are delighted to feature a guest post from John Beckford, Visiting Professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London and in the Centre for Information Management at Loughborough University.  John is a non-executive director at Fusion21.

It was probably two years ago that Colin Daniel at the School for CEOs said ‘John, you should write something for us, give us your take on leadership’.

Now, those of you who know me well will be aware that I am not a fan of the theocratic, ‘charismatic heroic’ or ‘self-experiential’ schools of leadership.  The first of these suggests the “Leader as God”, as opposed to “God as Leader” (a wholly separate discussion) and demands that, Zen like, to be a leader you must follow The Leader.  The second is based on the ‘how I saved the world’ or ‘won the cup’ model, suggesting some superior insight and people engagement ability.  The third model is ‘mimicry’ - do what I did and all will be fine - ignoring any difference in circumstances!

These are, of course, coarse abstractions, absurdly characterising for effect. Or are they? In each case, and for the most part quite sincerely, the writer has a genuine belief that they have discovered the indefatigable elixir of effective leadership. Meanwhile, many who claim great success in one field go on to, politely, less success in another.

Sometimes these models can help.  Sometimes all that most of us need is somebody, anybody, to generate a sense of purpose and direction, a goal around which our energies and efforts can coalesce, to be the linking pin in a community of shared interest.

So much for how we typically experience leadership, what of the task of systemic leadership itself?  It seems to me that the mantra of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’ is unhelpful.  The work of leadership (and it is work!) embraces all three of those at different times, perhaps sometimes more than one of them at a time!

In an article in Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2015), Senge, Hamilton and Kania characterised systemic leadership as “the system leader, a person who catalyzes collective leadership.” Meanwhile, The Institute for Systemic Leadership asks “Who actually takes an active responsibility for looking after the system’s competence as a whole – the bits, the connections, the gaps?”  So, the systemic leader BOTH catalyses collective effort AND comprehends that interaction and interdependence is key.

There are I think a series of tensions that the systemic leader must cope with.  They must simultaneously be a sceptical visionary, be humbly arrogant, be supportively dominant, be self-effacingly self-assured and be both theocrat and heretic!

Sceptical Visionary
A Sceptical Visionary must be able to hold in their heads simultaneously four things:

  • A vision, a model of the world as they believe it ought to be;
  • A model of the world as they believe it currently is;
  • A plan or process for guiding the ‘is’ towards the ‘ought’;
  • The possibility that the vision and consequently the route to the future might be wrong!

Humbly Arrogant
The Humbly Arrogant embrace the possibility that the vision might be wrong.  They must have the arrogance and belief in the vision to pursue it despite many challenges whilst clinging to the humility to recognise that others might have different, perhaps better, ideas both of the vision AND of the means of getting there.

Supportively Dominant
The Supportively Dominant leader must provide a direction and, whether leading the charge or bringing up the rear, must command the followership to pursue the vision.  All this whilst providing support to others, those who need encouragement, the doubters, those who need space to suggest different means of achieving the ends AND/OR wish to propose different ends!

Self-Effacingly Self-Assured
Being Self-Effacingly Self-Assured demands that the leader be confident enough in the pursuit of the vision to give space to others whilst also ensuring that credit for action and ideas is distributed widely to all those involved and affected.  Even if they are sometimes acting in ways which are contrary.  Acceptance of the sincerity and authenticity of the view they hold, however wrong we may think they are, is critical to their acceptance and participation, their ownership of the outcome.

Theocrat and Heretic
To be both Theocrat and Heretic recognises the inherent stress that exists in the pursuit of any one vision, any one world view however sincerely held, while not precluding the possibility that other world views, are legitimate in their own terms.  Systemic leaders then must pursue the theocracy whilst being their own heretic, persistently testing and exploring the vision.

The systemic leader must have the determination and tenacity to pursue their vision of the future while at the same time being willing to take the risk that both the ends AND the means may turn out to be wrong.  This means that, above all else, systemic leadership needs Courage.

Thank you John for sharing your insights.

This article was written by John Beckford, author of two books on management and organisational effectiveness, ‘Quality’ (4th Ed. Routledge, 2017) and ‘The Intelligent Organisation’ (Routledge, 2016). You can find more about John at

Post your comment


No one has commented on this page yet.

RSS feed for comments on this page | RSS feed for all comments