Leadership. It’s not just about ‘The Gorillas in the Mist’


I read a wide variety of material on leadership and am sometimes troubled by the fact, that nearly all of it, focuses solely on the responsibilities of chief executives and senior managers in organisations.  I am also often confronted by dialogue within organisations and from individuals about leadership failings in their workplace.  Invariably the fault is attributed, totally, to the chief executive or other senior managers.  I just don’t believe it is always that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that senior managers have huge responsibility for leadership.  Setting and communicating the vision, establishing priorities, setting the strategic direction, being visible to employees, being a role model, etc.  Senior managers do not always acquit their leadership responsibilities well.  I recall sitting in an Executive Board meeting some years ago and telling my fellow Board Members that staff felt they were like ‘Gorillas in the Mist’.  You know, dark shapes, unapproachable and only ever seen dimly, at a distance! Staff, at the time, were dissatisfied with the communication they got from above and felt they had very little direction from, nor meaningful contact with, senior managers. There was a strong sense of disconnect.

So, there is often scope for greater leadership from above.  In thinking about leadership, however, it is important for to recognise there is also scope, dare I say a responsibility, for all of us to be leaders.  It doesn’t matter where we sit in the organisation, it doesn’t matter at what level and it doesn’t matter whether we supervise other employees.  There are three areas, at least, where we can all be leaders.  We can do this by:

  • influencing workplace behaviour and culture;
  • being a good corporate citizen; and
  • using our technical and specialist expertise to guide better business outcomes.

Workplace Culture

On four occasions recently, I have been in discussions where people have expressed dissatisfaction with their workplace culture.  Each time I have encouraged them to think in terms of what they can do about it.  What are the behaviours you consider important to achieving a happy, supportive and fulfilling workplace?  Once you have clearly identified those behaviours ask the person looking back at you in the mirror “are those the behaviours I model and what can I do to promote them?”

It is true that a positive workplace culture should be championed and modelled from the top down.  Importantly though, each of us has the opportunity to step up and take a leadership role in influencing the culture we value and believe in.  This responsibility for individual leadership and the benefits, which can flow in terms of better workplace culture, are well captured in the short video attached to my recent post titled ‘ARBEJDSGLAEDE!? Happiness at Work’.

We can individually make a difference.

Corporate Citizenship

I have worked in a number of large organisations in the public and private sectors.  I have also consulted in organisations in both public and private sector.  In both capacities I have commonly, yes commonly, observed that organisational units or business lines tend to work in silos and focus on their business line responsibilities rather than talking a broader, whole of corporate, view.  Worse than the silo mentality, I have frequently seen combative attitudes and behaviours where teams or business lines do not support each other, seeing other teams requirements or actions as unreasonable.

There is a leadership opportunity for every individual here, to  recognise that as members of an organisation we need to work with unanimity of purpose to achieve our organisations vision and objectives.

By acknowledging the need to work together as a good corporate citizen, striving to achieve the organisations goals, without a focus on territorial boundaries, and by exhibiting a willingness to  work co-operatively, we can show individual leadership.

Technical and Specialist Leadership

I find that the issue of technical and specialist leadership arises less often in discussion, but in my experience it is a significant issue.

For example, in my past roles as Chief Operating Officer, I had leadership of large teams with a wealth of professional and technical skills and experience.  These included legal services, IT systems, accounting, communications and human resource management.  The challenge I frequently found, was that some of these wonderfully talented people had a propensity to provide services in a purely reactive way.  They responded by providing exactly the service requested by senior management or business line clients.  This was fine in its way.  It was great to simply give the clients what they asked for and typically the clients went away happy.  The challenge though was for these technically skilled people to switch the mindset to think pro-actively about how things could be done differently, and better, drawing on their technical skills and experience. To provide technical and specialist leadership.

I have used the corporate services situation as an example here because it is easy to grasp.  The issue is as valid in every business area.

Does this issue exist in your area?  Is this something you are sometimes guilty of? There are a couple of tell tale signs:

  • the dialogue which runs “why doesn’t the manager  [or client] just tell us what they want done and how!”.  An expectation of strategic direction is fine but it is the technical and specialist employee who is best placed to advise on the best way to achieve the strategic direction; and
  • the individual(s) who always presents their manager with the problem and expects the manager to think through the issues and provide the solution.  Individual leadership requires that, confronted with a problem, you think through the options for dealing with it and identify, drawing on your skills and experience, a recommended solution.

In conclusion, we all can provide leadership within our organisations.  If we step up and provide leadership, in these ways, we are empowered and it is much more gratifying than simply focussing on the possible failings of ‘The Gorillas in the Mist’.

Image:   Rachel Blaser/Shutterstock.com

(If you would like to receive notification of future blog posts please send an email, at the link on the contact page, with the word ‘Subscribe’ in the message field.)