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Leadership TheaterFor reasons not worth getting into, this past week I was reminded of a decade-old HBS discussion entitled “How Much of Leadership Is About Control, Delegation, or Theater?

The original discussion was prompted by a claim from Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer that leaders only explain 10% of a company’s performance. Instead, a company’s current performance can be explained by other factors such as the overall economy, the market the company operates in, and its historical performance. While I’m not even sure I agree with that assessment, Pfeffer further claims it’s important for leaders to perpetuate the myth of having control over performance, particularly in difficult times or periods of rapid change. From the article:

As employees, we expect it of our leaders. In our behavior, we defer to leaders. And that reinforces their tendency to act like what we expect of leaders. According to this line of thinking, it may require that a leader act out the role, concealing real feelings in the process. In short, it suggests that some part of leadership is theater that perpetuates the half-truth that leaders are indeed in control.

The discussion itself is inconclusive – likely the mix of control, delegation, and theater depends almost entirely on the specific circumstances. As the author wrote, “the strongest messages I received were that if leadership involves control, it is only over setting an organization’s course and priorities.”

However, as I re-read this discussion nearly a decade later, I realized many of us now operate in matrixed organizations in which we lead by influence and not purely by authority. Given that control and delegation are inherently weaker in matrixed organizations, we might conclude that theater has to be dialed up considerably. In fact, we all know managers who spend a significant portion of their time on internal cheerleading. Surely this is required but how much is too much theater?

To compound this issue, consider the situation of a leader who is new to an existing matrixed organization but without a clear change mandate. This suggests control is nearly non-existent and delegation difficult. Worse still, there are other leaders in the mix who likely feel they have control and the right to delegate. In this environment, theater might be viewed as only that – “all hat and no cattle.

I’m interested in input from my readers. If you were in this situation, how would you balance control, delegation, and theater?

This blog was originally posted on Manage by Walking Around on December 5, 2016.

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