6. The Leader’s Conundrum

Authors : John Lawler and Jeff Gold

John Lawler and Jeff Gold argue that we confuse leaders with leadership. The consequent focus on the development of individual leaders creates a paradox of distortion. They offer what they call the leader’s conundrum, which describes the process whereby senior leaders seek to control events and in so doing suffer a loss of control. Combining practice and theory, John Lawler brings his experience of helping business leaders plan and implement team alignment during points of transition, while Jeff Gold is Professor of Organisational Learning at Leeds Beckett University and has written extensively in this field.

  • Introduction
  • Leaders …
  • … and Leadership
  • The Case
  • Reflections on the Case
  • Conclusion
Questions for reflection and discussion  
  1. Think of an organisation in which you work, have worked, or know and consider the following questions:
    1. When does the river metaphor fit? Where doesn’t it fit, and why?
    2. Where is the organisation flowing and where is it stuck? What could be done that might help to open up any bottlenecks?
    3. Does the river’s course feel fixed or is its course changing and if so how? What might help it move to a better course?
    4. How well is the leaders’ description of the organisation’s course understood? Is there just one story being told, by a single leader, or multiple stories from different leaders?
    5. How much trust is there that the organisation can or will get there? What is helping to build trust within the organisation and what might be limiting trust within the organisation?
    6. How energized are the staff? What limits their energy? What changes in leadership style/behaviours might help them feel more energized?


  1. Imagine yourself as the CEO mentioned in the case study in this chapter.
    1. How would it feel to be faced by the conundrum whereby you are simultaneously expected to articulate a clear vision of the future whilst also recognising that this vision needs to be co-produced with followers in order to create a sense of shared ownership and commitment?
    2. How would you go about creating and articulating this vision and direction given the organisational context and the expectations placed up you in your role?
    3. What key indicators and/or milestones would you need to identify, monitor and evaluate to ensure you, and the organisation, were on track?


  1. Read the story about Tim Brighouse and the Birmingham Education Authority :
    1. How many thank you notes did Brighouse send?
    2. How much was inspiration and how much was hard work?
    3. To what extent do you believe the account written in this article – are there any parts of the story that are missing and/or perspectives that are not considered?
    4. Do you think it is reasonable to attribute so much of the success of this change process to Brighouse? Who/what else might have contributed to these outcomes?

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A Great Crusade – Guardian, April 2002