Magical Leadership Models

Feb 18, 2014 1 Min Read
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After the stupendous success of the Harry Potter series, J.K Rowling has opted to switch to adult fiction, with her book, The Casual Vacancy. I cannot help but wonder whether she considered writing management books, as an alternative genre. Many management insights can be drawn from the Harry Potter series.

In fact, others have written about it. Case in point being books like “If Harry Potter ran GE” by Tom Morris. However, I personally find myself fascinated by the contrasting leadership styles of Lord Voldemort versus Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore.

There are four key leadership differences in missions, managing others, performance management and strategy:

1. Mission

Like many stories, Harry Potter is about good versus evil. Voldemort desires to rule over the world and the good guys aim to stop him. Both are very clear in what their mission is, however, that is where the similarities end. The mission for Voldemort is only about him; one is not able to disassociate the mission from the leader. This is not unlike enterprises driven by a celebrity CEO or entrepreneur, where the mission is very much defined by the individual, say Microsoft and Bill Gates.

This works well enough when one has an inspiring and charismatic leader. In contrast, neither Potter nor Dumbledore are particularly charismatic. However, their mission is not for personal glory. In fighting against the evil of Voldemort, it is the welfare of others at stake. So much so that both Potter and Dumbledore are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. Their selflessness and greater good at heart, helps draw passionate support for their mission. In a similar way, the leaders of environmental NGOs like WWF or Greenpeace, are hardly household names but there is no shortage of passion from their supporters to the mission.

2. Managing Others

Voldemort is basically dominating and dictatorial in style. Ruling by fear and motivating followers by greed. This approach doesn’t engender true loyalty and attracts opportunists, the likes of Lucius Malfoy and Peter Pettigrew. Both had abandoned Voldemort after his first defeat but were ready to rejoin the Death Eaters when Voldemort became powerful again.

In real life, powerful dictators can be effective at marshalling people to follow and remaining in power over nations for years long (Libya comes to mind). Voldemort’s style may be repulsive but even in the real (Muggle) world, it has been known to be effective in driving results (albeit not sustainably).

Potter is the archetypal reluctant leader. In the words of Dumbledore, “It is a curious thing, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.” He is the humble leader who defers to others according to situation, such as allowing Ron to take the lead in playing chess at the climax of the Philosopher’s Stone. Unlike a dictator, Potter’s leadership comes about more democratically, as others look to him for leadership such as in the formation of Dumbledore’s army.

As opposed to dominating by providing explicit instructions, Dumbledore develops future leaders, providing the tools and guidance for those like Potter and his friends to realise their true potential. Whilst some may desire to be “led”, this model of leadership is seen for example, where it is leadership amongst peers. In professional services firms, the managing partner is chosen by fellow partners and respect needs to be earned.

Potter’s leadership style is relevant in today’s increasingly complex world. It calls for greater situational leadership according to the respective strengths of team members and to ensure sustainability, a culture to develop the future pipeline of leaders.

3. Performance Management

Voldemort is very much into performance and magical ability. The most powerful wizards are sought to join Voldemort’s ranks, with a requirement for “pure-bloods” (both parents wizards). Voldemort then rewards (and punishes) based on results achieved. Clearly, a performance management system well anchored on KPIs and competencies. As in the real world, this is in line with traditional means to drive results.

In contrast, Dumbledore and Potter place greater emphasis on character and values. The good guys have a stronger diversity policy and the most talented in their ranks include Muggle-borns (neither of Hermione’s parents are wizards), a werewolf (Remus Lupin) and general misfits (Luna, Neville, Dobby). The leadership provided by Dumbledore and Potter is one that is accepting of others without prejudice and enabling them to develop.

As an example of a performance management system that rewards values – in the Philosopher’s Stone, Gryffindor wins the House Cup after Neville is awarded 10 points for the integrity shown in standing up to his friends. Especially given how unclear the path to success is for Potter and his friends, all the more important to be anchored on values in making decisions. The last global financial crisis has to some extent reinforced the importance of values, to avoid systemic failure.

4. Strategy

Voldemort shows strong strategic clarity. His plans for world domination are well laid out, systematic in for example, building up his followers into key positions at the Ministry of Magic, in the lead up to taking over. Voldemort is also a strong practitioner of risk management. While best practice organisations would aim to have say one or two disaster recovery centers or systems backup, Voldemort has no less than seven horcruxes; requiring all seven which are placed in different locations to be destroyed in order to kill him. With such strong, detailed planning, execution and risk mitigation, if he wasn’t so evil, one would be very sympathetic to Voldemort’s always failing.

So how does Potter eventually succeed, when all the odds are against him and his friends? At best, their strategy is a rough plan without risk mitigation. Worse, it is poorly communicated and often key elements are kept in secret by leaders (such as Snape’s role). Success in each instalment of Potter required an element of heroics, faith and good fortune to defeat Voldemort, such as in Chamber of Secrets, having Dumbledore’s pet phoenix arrive in the nick of time to help Potter overcome the basilisk.

One might say that perhaps it is only in works of fiction that things end happily ever after. However, the history of the world has no shortage of heroic success and captures various unlikely achievements of individuals who were able to make a positive difference. As Dumbledore assures us, “Help is always given… to those who ask of it.”

In contrast to the leadership styles, I am inclined to the wisdom that “the truth is somewhere in between”. Putting aside for a moment the inconvenient label of Voldemort as evil, one would have to concede that elements of his leadership are practicable and in some sense, effective. This includes having a clear strategy, risk management, focus on performance and competencies; and taking a clear carrot and stick approach.

It may be efficient but in today’s world that is not enough, especially in an increasingly uncertain world and one where transformation is needed. Hence, we too need to balance and draw from Potter, the importance of strong purpose, practising selflessness, developing future leaders and having strong values. Last but by no means least, when faced with your darkest hour, like Potter, we must keep faith, that if one’s motivations are sincere, help will be at hand and good shall prevail, eventually.

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Johan is formerly the CEO of TalentCorp He believes that a strong partnership through gender and ethnic diversity is best for Malaysia and thus, hope our employers will be progressive, particularly in embracing inclusiveness and flexible work arrangements.

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