Through the years, many of the great and the good have attempted to sum up the qualities that make a successful leader.
Napoleon famously characterised a leader as “a dealer in hope”. More recently Microsoft head, Bill Gates, defined a leader as one who “empowers others’.
But whatever the star quality required, it seems leaders are in short supply within UK organisations, according to new research from management consultancy Hay Group.
In a survey of 300 UK companies, it found that more than four-fifths (81%) feel they lack the internal talent to fill future leadership positions as the baby-boomer generation hit retirement age over the next five years or so.
Hay’s director, Frank Hartle, said the problem isn’t just quality, it’s quantity.
“The ageing workforce is reducing the numbers of the most senior ranks, in particular, and firms don’t have the talent coming through to replace them,” he says.
The findings mirror similar studies carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which, according to learning and development adviser Victoria Winkler, show companies face similar problems, though not as acute, in their search for middle-level and junior-level leaders.
Winkler said while talent management processes are more deeply entrenched in leading organisations than ever, many schemes don’t go far enough.
“A lot of companies concentrate on top level management development programmes to cover the next five years, but they should be looking further down the pipeline and initiating programmes that start to develop the leaders for 10-15 years time,” she says.
At talent management consultancy, Get Feedback, managing director Ali Gill has also detected a short-sightedness in the way companies identify those with potential leadership qualities.
“There is a very fixed view on the type of people who will make potential leaders. Companies don’t take heed of the diverse range of talents and motivations that exist among their ranks,” she says.
For Gill, there are different types of leaders within the modern workplace, each requiring different mindsets.
A leader of a business function, for example, is likely to be technically good at their job and be motivated by staying ahead of the competition, while a general manager is prone to want to solve complex problems. The ability to see the bigger picture and inspire others may be some of the traits of a thought leader.
“Organisations must differentiate the various skills they require and be scientific in their recruitment and the dissection of the skills that exist within,” Gill says.
Richard Colgan, co-founder of executive head-hunter company, Oakley Partnership, has certainly seen an increase in the demand for leaders from clients in the past 18 months.
“Companies recognise they are chronically short of leaders and are playing catch-up,” he says.
According to Colgan, a true leader has to be extremely visible within an organisation and be a good listener.
He says: “A lot of senior candidates are technically strong but don’t have that X-factor. Leaders have a certain presence about them and feel as comfortable chatting with a junior person as they do debating a major acquisition with the main board.”
Leadership trainer and motivator Stephen Miller said these skills can be developed within people but thinks traditional leadership courses such as outdoor teambuilding and management theories are obsolete.
“Leaders can be created by growing their self-belief, their ability to inspire through communication and their emotional intelligence,” he says.
One can only wonder what Napoleon would have made of that.