Good leaders are not just miracle workers

Has UK plc got the leaders it deserves? Clearly not if you look at some of the Government-backed initiatives under way to define and develop leadership among current and potential top managers. The new Council for Excellence in Management and Leadership has been established by the Government to “ensure that the UK is able to develop managers and leaders of the future to match the best in the world”.

Research carried out with business schools and practitioners under the auspices of the Management Charter Initiative over the past two years suggests that there is still much work to be done just to make sense of the many variations on the theme of leadership.

My own research suggests that employees in all sectors are crying out for top management to provide clarity of direction and purpose. The frequently reported practice by some top managers of putting short-term considerations ahead of more strategic choices may well reflect the real pressures exerted by the money markets and/or a lack of leadership skill, including the ability to shape stakeholder expectations.

However, progress towards a working model of leadership is painfully slow. While my preference is to work for a participative leader, I also recognise that there are times when command and control, one-way communications and tough decision-making are needed.

Then there are the dangers of relying heavily on one approach to leadership. In the education sector in particular, the “great man” school of leadership seems much in evidence – witness the number of star headteachers and principals who are brought in to turn around failing institutions. When they fail, they are left with tarnished reputations.

Unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved in a short time are often based on the belief that one visionary individual can transform an organisation. Far more substantial change can probably be achieved by a leader who can develop leadership and teamworking at all levels, make people accountable for performance, and develop potential, as well as fix short-term issues.

New leaders often assume they must restructure, often destroying much of their predecessor’s work which is only coming to fruition after they have moved on. For someone using their current job as a career stepping stone, the focus may well be on things which look good to current and future boards, and less on the longer-term development of organisational capability.

Perhaps the biggest issue is how leaders are selected. The kind needed in a start-up organisation may not be the same as during phases of growth, maturity, decline and turnaround. Leaders also need to find organisations which fit the skills and approaches they are able to offer, rather than seeking to make the organisation fit them. Perhaps the true test of leaders is after they have moved on and people say, “They made a difference”.

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