The Leadership Equation

Kirsten Hogg, Co-Director of Camphill Scotland, the membership body for Camphill communities in Scotland, compares good leadership to algebra. Do you agree with her calculations?

On the bus the other day I overheard a boy helping his friend with his maths homework. It was the first time in years I’d heard the mention of algebra, but the excitement of 4x+y = b soon came flooding back. There’s part of me that really likes maths in all its forms – balancing the books being one of the only times in my working life where there is definitively a right or wrong answer. But the problem-solving nature of algebra was always my favourite, and mulling this over on the bus it struck me that actually there are lots of similarities between algebra and good leadership (bear with me!)

In algebra, you don’t start out with all the answers, but you use what little you do know to help you to get to a solution. That strikes me as very similar to good leadership practices. I use what I know about a colleague’s preferred way of working to figure out how to get the best out of them;  I use what I know about government policy to plan how that might influence my organisation’s future work; and I use what I know about a funder’s priorities to work out how I can make our project look most attractive to them.

As I listened to the boy help his friend with his homework, I also got to thinking about why great leaders are also great collaborators. They know that not only don’t they have all the answers, they sometimes don’t have all the information either. One of my leadership role models in the sector seems to me to know everyone, she’s always popping up on LinkedIn as the person who’s already connected to pretty much anyone I ever look up, but more than that she invests a huge amount of time in building real relationships with people and finding areas of common interest. While my post in a much smaller organisation means I have to be hands on back at the ranch more often than she does, I am slowly learning that time spent having a face to face meeting over coffee rather than just corresponding by email, is time very well spent. I may not have all the answers, or even all the information, but at least I generally know who to ask when I’m stuck with my homework.

When I left university, floating around the jobs market slightly aimlessly and wondering what to do, I applied for the NHS management graduate scheme. Mighty pleased to have got through the first two rounds, I found myself in an interview telling the panel that I’m not a natural born leader. That answer haunted me for many years – imagine going for a management role if you’re not a natural leader – but looking back I’m actually quite pleased with what I said.  You see the reason that I gave them for not being a natural leader was that I felt uncomfortable with the notion of telling people what to do when I might not have all the answers. Setting aside my naïve view then that leadership was about telling people what to do, I’m really quite impressed with my 21 year old self’s level of insight. Good leaders don’t have all the answers, they don’t even have all the information, and the day they think they do is a dangerous one.