Flash Leadership

I tuned in to watch the start of another series of “The Apprentice” and was struck by the latest phenomena which I now call “Flash Leadership”.

Similar to “flash mob”, “flash leadership” is a spontaneous burst of ‘leading’, the actions of one individual serving as the catalyst for further bursts of similar behaviour from others within the immediate vicinity.

The act of “flash leadership” appears to be instantly contagious and wholly consuming. It is pernicious in nature and guerrilla in its strategic aims and execution but is often wrongfully diagnosed as a benign instance of over zealous determination to see the team / business succeed because of its duplicitous nature – elevating the “flash leader” whilst undermining the target under the guise of “sharing business advice”.

The phenomenon that is “flash leadership” was apparent on “The Apprentice” – a highly charged, highly competitive environment where teamwork is essential for ‘I’ to win, the very antithesis of good management and leadership practice.

Under the scrutiny of Karren Brady and Nick Hewer, contestants contribute whilst waiting for the prime opportunity to burst into “flash leadership”, undermining the Project Manager to demonstrate their own acumen and further increase the stock value of “Brand Me” with the influential observers scribbling copious notes for later sharing with the ‘boss’.

The instant a challenge is made to the “PM”, the phenomena takes hold and other would be “leaders” emerge, no longer happy to be providing a backdrop for a dual between the lead actor and the main contender.

This appearing to wake from mass hypnosis which had hitherto gripped the group through the storming, forming and norming phases must be quite disconcerting for the unsuspecting leader who’s now in the performing quadrant of group dynamics – alone it transpires, the rest of the group having regressed back into storming with incredible synchronicity and speed.

Viewing this phenomena unfold through the medium of television is sanitary but, reading the CMI’s ‘Future Forecast’ survey which finds low levels of job security amongst managers, I suggest current working environments may be becoming the kind of ultra competitive, highly charged situations in which such behaviour will manifest itself and become part of normal business etiquette.

The current vogue appears to be the rhetorical questioning of “layers of bureaucratic middle management”; perceived to be adding little or no value to the product or service, flat management structures and the threat of redundancy or jettison resulting in ever greater jostling for the attention and affirmation of the ‘boss’.

The chasm in perception between leadership (the acts of the ‘boss’) and management continues to grow, ‘leaders’ hailed as corporate saviours. No-one wants to be seen as “managing”, now the imperative is to demonstrate leadership ability.

The current corporate climate is primed for “flash leadership” to consume and decimate previously highly collaborative teams resulting in competition and the fight for survival becoming inward and contained rather than focused on increasing financial yield or market share against external competitors.

Left unchecked, “flash leadership” could completely remove the balusters that keep the corporate structure stable, leading to a collapse in internal capability, a precursor to the external shell of the company folding.

Unlike “flash mob”, “flash leadership” will be un-choreographed; individualist in nature; nauseating to watch; and, whilst the outward symptoms may dissipate if starved of attention from senior managers and leaders, those who were unaffected by the spontaneous ‘need to lead’ may find they are left suffering residual symptoms, typically distrust of and cynicism toward colleagues; reluctance to share ideas or thoughts and, in extreme cases, anger, resentment and retaliatory behaviour.

It will always hold that, in any conflict, there will be winners and losers. Should such guerrilla tactics be rewarded through acquiescence, more and more militants will emerge and, as with all wars, there will be casualties on both sides.

Survival and growth of the business remains paramount but before descending into pseudo-civil conflict, leaders should consider the skills required to achieve the corporate objectives and build their team accordingly, constructively and deliberately.

Open communication; due process and transparency will ensure that people are given their opportunity to shine as a result of knowledge and ability rather than the deployment of astute guerrilla strategies. Bear in mind that, as with most guerrilla campaigns, unless you’re a leader of the ilk and standing of Lord Sugar, the next time a burst of “flash leadership” occurs it may be the leader who’s being usurped!

This is a guest post by Colin Millar, an ambassador for CMI, a leading supplier of management training in the UK.

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