Who makes the best leaders?

 As Europe seeks to position itself as a viable competitor in the global marketplace, the time has come to trumpet the strengths of European leaders – from an ability to work across cultures, to a flexible and consensual style.

A recent debate at Ashridge business school looked at what makes for successful leadership in European companies and organisations – particularly in comparison to their North American counterparts, from which so many of today’s leadership models have emerged.
We ask what characterises European leadership, and what forces are driving the debate.

Kai Peters, Chief executive, Ashridge

European leaders tend to be consultative, patient – working with the organisation rather than telling it what to do – and very aware of the environment in which they work.

There’s a breadth of need to understand, and successful European leaders have a solid grasp of culture in the broader sense – including history and politics – and a good ability to empathise with the audience they are working with.

You have to have something of the chameleon about you. The North American leader is driven by the homogeneity of the market.

Erik Swartz, Managing director, Stockholm Centre for Management Development

Why focus on commonalities? It goes with the whole idea of the EU. We have an area in Europe that we are trying to organise into some federal system.

Compared with federalism in the US, they have 50 states and a lot of forces that make it easy to act together in unity. In Europe, we have to establish that way of thinking.

Atle Jordahl, Director of international relations, Norwegian School of Economics and Business

Even if it can be difficult to find a common denominator for European leadership, I think that we have one important thing in common. That is the concern for the US management style.

I am particularly thinking of the ‘one strong man’ approach to leadership that is coming out of US government, companies and business schools; the lack of respect for context that many US companies and leaders communicate to others.

In Europe, we are used to living with multiple realities due to our long history with conflicts over territories, religions, ethnicity and ideologies; and the one-dimensional approach to life and business with a strong focus on profit. As Central and Eastern European countries move into the market economy, they have to ‘choose’ between a US or a Western European leadership approach.

George Binney, Co-author, Living Leadership – A Practical Guide for Ordinary Heroes

European leaders don’t ‘put it up on the wall’. They don’t immediately say: “These are the values, this is who we are”. It’s a more understated, modest way of leading, and there’s clearly something very important about a sense of history.

The Americans can talk confidently about charismatic leadership in a way that Europeans can’t because of that history. So much of what we hear on business and organisations comes out of US business schools. Where’s the European voice here?

Even though there has been a shift to the ‘quiet hero’, the focus is still on individuals who ‘do’ to organisations.

Rick Woodward, European learning and development director, Kimberly-Clark Europe

Kimberly-Clark has recently conducted a major survey of all its senior leaders across the world, and found no statistically significant differences between European and North American responses.

This year, we launched six global leadership qualities: visionary, building talent, decisiveness, collaboration, inspirational and innovative. We’ve assessed the top 90 leaders across the globe against these qualities, and designed personal action plans.

Whereas the US has a one-size-fits-all approach, Europe is very much about diversity and difference. US leadership likes simple, big ideas, and they tend to skate over details, whereas in Europe, we tend to think the devil’s in the detail.

And the whole approach to decision making in the US is very much ‘tell and sell’, whereas in Europe it is ‘argue and agree’ – although in the case of the English it’s more like ‘debate and hesitate’.

John Trotman, Principal consultant, Training and Management Services

When I work in countries down at operational level there is a country approach to how companies are led and managed, even in big multinationals in the motor industry or FMCG sector.

But at regional level, they’ve developed a European management style, which depends very much on company culture. It’s an inclusive approach, but within a hierarchy.

The US is different in that decisions are usually taken in the states and then communicated throughout the regional network. People in the US don’t feel they have the same scope to shape strategy – they are more like ‘implementers’.


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