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Leadership: How attuned are you?

Date Released: Fri, 28 October 2011 12:36 +0200

by Professor Reuel Khoza, Visiting Professor at Rhodes Business School.


A leader who is not in tune with the followership soon becomes a leader in limbo, and sooner, rather than later, withers.  Attuned leaders, by contrast, adapt, lift their followership as they rise to leadership challenges, endure and lead successfully in context.

Just how do they accomplish this?  Several aspects of their leadership ensure that they bridge the dualisms of leader and led, self and community, person and people – I am because you are, you are because we are.

To elucidate the metaphor, attuned leadership rests on the four supporting pillars:

• Being self-attuned based on reflection and introspection

• Being attuned to the followership’s deep sense of history, prevailing conditions and a beckoning destiny.

• Being attuned to the needs and aspirations of the followers, and

• Being attuned to the moral imperatives of integrity, probity, humility and a sense of efficacy.

At every step of the way, from self-attainment to the resonant quest for destiny, the leader should be aware of conative feelings as well as cognitive.  Mental processes that are present in him or her and in the followers.  The English word conative, by the way, came into psychological parlana relatively recently to apply to the aspirational aspects of our human nature.  It is drawn from the Latin word “conari” which means to attempt or to strive.  It thus implies that leadership is a striving to fulfill the aspirations of the followership.  By focusing also on cognition, the leader is both emotionally and intellectually attuned to the followers.

The personal qualities attuned leaders bring to their kind of leadership include:

Insight: Seeing the world from the followership’s vantage point and embracing their world views non-judgmentally, “to walk in their moccasins’, so to speak.  Attuned leadership is thus as passionate as it is compassionate.

Inspiration:  Engendering a sense of follower self-worth, pride in current status and hopefulness in the future.  In the relationship of leader and led, it is vital to strike a balance between reality and potentiality.

Commitment:  Ardently pursuing an agreed course of action but remaining willing to be flexible and respond to changes in the environment or expectations.

Probity:  Assuring the followers that the leader can be held accountable.  Probity is the ethical imperative to remain upright and honest in the service of the followership, and behaving in a manner that is beyond reproach.

The attuned leader is a reflective person for whom human relationships are of primary importance;  hence empathy and identification with the followership will typify his actions.  The attuned leader is also a student of human affairs with a developed sense of the forces at work under the surface.  The attuned leader wins trust and maintains it by producing results that are in line with the deep human need of followers.  A sense of efficacy in the leader combines confidence in the power to do good with competence to carry desires into effect.  Trust can easily be broken by promising too much, or delivering too little.

It is fundamentally important that the leader be a student of human nature and of human reality.  You cannot have an ignorant leader who has gone through no process of leadership development and who is grossly incapable of sensing the aspirations of the followership.  Demagogues may dominate through sheer force of will but this does not qualify as leadership in the normative sense.  Both sensitivity and good sense are required if one is to be a principled leader.

No leader can be all-knowing and all-seeing all the time.  To lead, a person has to depend on the hearts and minds, eyes and ears, of others, and be capable of dealing with complexity in an intellectually and emotionally intelligent manner.  The leader needs both sense and sensitivity.  To use the language of psychology, it is up to the leadership to sense intuitively (conatively) and grasp intellectually (cognitively) the yearnings of followers.

It is the expectations and perceptions of the followership that set out the path of leadership, but without sense and sensitivity the leader cannot respond appropriately – nor can the leader act confidently as a pioneer, taking the unexpected route with poise and assurance, the route no-one expected him to follow, but the route that nonetheless is the one that will carry the followership to their hoped-for goals.  Leaders, by listening become pioneers by nature.  A very good leader will be an optimizer of co-ordination.

Leadership is a universal calling.  It is a feature of politics, business, civil society and family matters.  It is everywhere and it involves everyone.  Cabinets, Boards and Foundations all need leaders.  People need leaders.  Those men and women who lead successfully are co-ordinators rather than controllers.

Their moral stature arises from dedication to our cause.  We admire them not because they are powerful;  they are powerful because we make them so, and they are admirable when they provide clear vision and positive direction.  They are leaders most of all when they strike out in a new direction that even their followers could not have anticipated.  Because the foundation of mutual trust is there, the followers will most likely endorse the initiative.  We should never forget that leadership represents a meeting of the spirit between those who yearn for change and those in a position to bring it about.

Leadership orchestrates complexity.  The metaphor of musical harmony (including disharmony) is relevant.  The phrase attuned leadership contains this metaphor with all that it implies about an ensemble of separate players all mutually tuned to perform together.  Harmony does not mean unison, by the way.

Only a dictator demands total unison from the subject people, using terror and propaganda to impose conformity.  Instrumentalists in an orchestra rarely harp on a single note but instead make music from many lines of melody in counterpoint.  In the same way, leadership relies on the combination of talents in the community to deliver a command performance.  An attuned leader seeks consensus amongst the followers (harmony), but will settle for sufficient consensus allowing for some disagreement (disharmony) to be voiced as a healthy sign of tolerance for differences of opinion.

The melodic comparison came easily to me.  As a former choral singer and still a composer of verses set to music, the notion that the leader is the conductor of a many-part harmony struck me as appropriate – not just because it avoids the idea of unison, but also because a conductor without an orchestra cannot be a conductor at all!

My daughter, Munene Khoza, as a student of the arts, helped me to full appreciation of the metaphor when she wrote:

“The basic conventions of music present the ensemble with a common language and means of cohesion.  However, the role of the conductor extends far beyond donning the cheekily archaic tail-coat tuxedo and affording his musicians a steady beat to latch on to.  It is the conductor’s task to use convention as a point of departure from which to draw from his orchestra a performance that is characterized by the notions of favouring the collective over the individual and the beauty of inimitable interpretation over uninspired recitation   The invariable potential of the collective and the journey from page to performance hinges on the conductor’s talent to observe, cultivate and optimize talent in others”.

Fatherly pride aside, what is most beautiful and thought-provoking in this passage is how Munene connects musical convention, individual expression and synchronicity. All three are essential elements of performance.  Translate that into procedure, empowerment and co-operation, and you have the basic principles of creative organization.

The leader must work through routines that are known, recognized and trusted: this is the key principle of governance that makes an organization of any kind predictable and reliable.  At the same time, the talents and enthusiasm of people must be encouraged even if they break the bounds of what was previously thought right or permissible:  creative destruction is, after all, the source of innovation. Finally, it is up to leadership to weld the parts into a whole.  This is no mechanical act.  Munene puts her finger on the essence of inspired leadership by contrasting dullness with “the beauty of inimitable interpretation”:  there has to be something rousing in the leader’s vision to motivate a strong following.

Central to this perspective is that the philosophical traditions of Africa offer an important contribution to the theory and practice of leadership in the world today.  African humanism or Ubuntu, evokes both reason and empathy as the basis of ethical leadership.  Ubuntu captured and articulated in the Nguni proverbal expressesion – Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – means that a person is a person because of other people.  The conceptual model of Attuned Leadership contends that the reciprocal relationship between the individual and the social collective stimulates caring and progressive thought and action.  Nowhere is this more apt than in the relationship between leader and followers.  Herein resides the essential resonance of Attuned Leadership.