Is it better to be good at what you do? Or better to be liked for who you are? As a leader, or maybe in any field, which is the nobler aim? Of course, the answer is both. But it’s not always that simple. When you have to sacrifice one in service of the other, which way do you fall?
This is an age-old dichotomy: the balance between competence and congeniality. Indeed, one of the very first leadership models I came across – the support-challenge matrix – spoke to these polarities, at least in behavioural terms. The matrix (see here) describes the climate created by leaders when their behaviours err towards poles of challenge or support.
Useful as this simple model is, it is as incomplete as all four-box diagrams. On the plus side, the rewards of leading a high-challenge high-support culture is clear, as are the risks of letting slide either of the behaviours. However, I’ve rarely seen leaders consistently maintain their actions in the top-right box. There’s more at play here than mere behaviours; context, culture, role-models, psychology, upbringing, values and self-esteem are all active ingredients in the recipe that leads to ones behavioural traits.
The popular MBTI model is often quoted as a reason (and equally often as an excuse) for why some people value competence (those with ‘thinking’ or ‘T’ preferences) whereas others value being liked (those with a ‘feeling’ or ‘F’ preference). I’ve always thought this over-simple interpretation of the Carl Jung’s personality model is misleading in that it risks stereotyping people and excusing their behaviour as merely the inevitable outputs of psychological hardwiring. We’re not that simple.
Our role as leaders is to recognise our preferences, understand our behaviour, be aware of our impact, and most importantly to flex our style to meet the needs of the people we serve as leaders.
I’ve witnessed some truly lovely (often ‘F’ preference) people using their well-practiced ‘loveliness’ as a defence against doing work that needs to be done. They sacrifice competence and use interpersonal appeal to seek forgiveness or support. Equally, I’ve seen over-dominant (often ‘T’ preference) leaders sacrifice the feelings and engagement of colleagues on the altar of apparent necessity. Neither approach is effective past the short term.
When I started working alongside the NHS, the leadership culture was one of ‘grip’, which consists of managing people, teams and organisations in pursuance of target-based directives. This challenge-laden, demanding cultural context persisted through the first decade of this century. Many leaders managed to balance the harder edges of driving compliance with the softer attention to people that promotes staff wellbeing and patient care. Many, however, did not. When polled and analysed, a preponderance of a pacesetting, directive style was manifest and palpable in the senior cadre of NHS leaders.
As the lessons of both Francis reports permeated, I felt the narrative and attention of leadership across the NHS system change. Patient care became the storyline of the day, and a more rounded, more human and less technocratic style of leadership seemed to be the aspiration.
However, at least from where I sit, ‘grip’ may be returning as the trump card. The NHS is financially challenged in a way it has never been before. Flat funding, rising costs, increasing demands, staffing challenges, regulation and more all add pressure to the climate we find ourselves in. No wonder that some leaders are reverting to their older behaviours: valuing the ‘what’ and turning a blind eye to the ‘how’, even if it’s the impact of their own behaviour to which their blind eye is turned.
Whether it’s the context around us, or our inner psychology, that influences our behaviour; neither excuses the responsibility we have for the impact of our actions. When you look in the proverbial mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone who’ll duck their responsibilities in service of being liked, someone who’ll readily forgo popularity in service of (their own definition of) the job or a leader who is responsive and reflexive to the needs of their team and organisation?