The Politics and Power of Leadership

By Andrew Grant

Individuals vs teams: how they stack up

Have you ever noticed during elections much of the campaigning in many different countries around the world has focused on the charisma of individual leaders or the persona related to the family name rather than the effectiveness of the party and it’s leadership teams?

Apparently political ideas need a face. Someone to like or loathe, someone to become a hero, or someone to blame when things go wrong. It appears that if we can ‘follow the leader’, we are happy, no matter who or what might be behind that person.


Have we gone the same way with leadership in organisations? Are we simply looking for individuals who can represent an ideal rather than teams that can effectively actualise important leadership principles?

Firstly, placing responsibility on one single individual can be a concern. One individual cannot be the sole expert in today’s multi-faceted organisation. Certainly, it helps to have individual leaders who can motivate people, provide direction, and make the final decisions. But the role of the leader today should be more of a facilitator or coordinator who is able to utilise the talents and resources of a team.

Secondly, giving leadership a specific personality can be a concern. What happens when a new leader comes in? Must that new person fit into the established mould? Having a specific leadership profile can often hamper the development of new leaders with different personalities and styles.


In his ground breaking book ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’, Surowiecki demonstrates how a diverse group of independent creative thinkers with different personalities and styles will more often come up with superior solutions to an isolated individual, no matter how smart the individual might be. Surowiecki cites the TV show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ as an example of this. In this program group intelligence is pitted against individual intelligence, and the majority of the time the group decision is more correct than that provided by an individual – in fact the statistics reveal that although the single experts get 65% of the questions correct, the random audience group is correct 91% of the time.

If the level of expertise of a group reaches a ceiling of what the single individual leader knows or does, then the whole group will always be limited in what they can achieve.

The single leader may soon find it hard to compete with new leadership teams.



Information has become complex. It’s not possible for one expert to know everything. Instead leaders need to tap the collective knowledge of the team they lead. Research has now shown that experts can often be ‘spectacularly narrow’ in their knowledge, not allowing for creative alternatives to looking at issues.


Single individuals as leaders can also be poor at calibrating their judgement – routinely overestimating the likelihood of being right. A recent study of foreign exchange traders found that they overestimated the accuracy of their exchange rate prediction 70% of the time. They were not just wrong, but they also didn’t have any idea of just how wrong they were. 


Many leaders deliberately surround themselves with people that are like-minded, and end up creating environments where there is little diversity in ideas. Ned Herman has shown that a homogonous team (a team of like-minded people) usually experiences less friction, but will also achieve mediocre results when compared to a heterogenous team (a team of individuals with different beliefs and ideas). The more cohesive a team is the more dependant they can be on each other, and the more insulated they can be from different opinions and ideas. Because each person’s ideas support the others, an environment of ‘groupthink’ is established, and the impression is created that these ideas are in fact ‘correct’ or ‘superior’ to other ideas. These groups can end up sharing an illusion of invulnerability, and a tendency to rationalize away counter arguments.


Most cultures in Asia are taught to respect their elders and leaders (the wise ones). Questioning the leader can be a sign of disrespect. But this can mean that potential leaders and teams fail to develop confidence in their own ideas and opinions and are not encouraged to share the responsibilities of leadership. In a group situation, this can also mean that there is pressure to conform, and that a person may change their opinion not because they agree but it is easier to conform than to go against the group. There can be the same culture of leader dependence in many different organisations, which will ultimately hamper development.


For some leaders, achieving and maintaining power can be more important than being effective in achieving outcomes. As Collins has said, “Some leaders even in a million years could not bring themselves to subjugate their egotistic needs to the greater ambition of building something larger and more lasting than themselves. Work will always be fame fortune and power – not what they build, create and contribute.” In over three-quarters of poorly performing companies, Collins found that executives set their successors up for failure, or deliberately chose weak ones, in order to make themselves look good.


Experts (and most people are promoted into leadership positions because of their expertise) are experienced in solving problems by giving their expert advice. Traditionally managers have learnt to solve problems and react to events as they arise, taking on the role of fire-fighters. But effective leaders are able to manage other people effectively to get things done, and are able to bring out the creative ideas of the group so that the group can anticipate potential problems and come up with creative solutions. When put in a leadership position, individuals need to learn to tap the creative knowledge of the group and create a proactive environment of inquiry.


The secret to effective leadership today is learning to embrace differences, encourage participation from a team of people, and accept ambiguity – but many leaders will find it difficult to do this. They think they should lead with “strong, decisive, individual, clear and immediate decisions”, but fail to recognize that before good decisions can be made all options need to be considered carefully. This requires creative lateral thinking outside of current norms, and harnessing the team’s knowledge. Peter Senge believes that management teams tend to confront complex, dynamic realities with a language designed for simple problems. It is time to think and act more creatively as leaders.

What distinguishes great leaders is the clarity and persuasiveness of their ideas, the depth of their commitment and their openness to continually learning more. They do not believe they “have the answers”, but instead instil confidence in those around them and believe that together “we can learn what ever we need to learn in order to achieve the results we truly desire.”

Perhaps the major thing leaders today should be expert in is managing a team. By focusing on taking a role as effective facilitators, motivators and coordinators of others, and by surrounding themselves with different people who can challenge them and contribute a different perspective, leaders can access the real power of the team.

©2004 Andrew Grant


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