and advising leaders fit for the global stage is a messy business, says David
Butcher. In the first of our occasional Masterclasses, he offers guidance on
how to do it better
in leadership thrives on both sides of the Atlantic. Both UK and US articles on
leadership continue to be published at a prodigious rate.
at least one thing is changing. As though to offer a disclaimer for what they
are about to say, authors these days often begin by pointing out that there is
still no agreed definition of leadership. A quick browse through a selection of
both practitioner and academic publications reveals this to be broadly correct,
if a trifle pedantic.
this state of affairs seems to have little impact on leader development and
training, if mainstream practice is anything to go by. In this arena, what we
mean by leadership is clear enough. But is it right, particularly if we are
thinking about business leadership?
of the effort to develop business leaders takes the setting and communicating of
vision, goals and culture as the starting point. Strong emphasis is placed on
understanding and deploying appropriate style, and all this is underpinned by
the need to identify and nurture essential personal qualities of leadership
like integrity, and empathy.
leaders are very obviously poor communicators, but they nonetheless run
successful businesses. Great organisations are sometimes headed by intolerant,
narcissistic CEOs who by no stretch of the imagination can be said to vary
their style one iota. They have just the one, otherwise known as their
personality. They are often poor coaches, distant figures, who are anything but
is it really the case in vibrant enterprises that everyone understands the
overall mission and corporate goals, never mind agrees with them? After all,
organisational growth can be hugely exciting, but aimless. So it cannot be that
course, business leadership is all about vision and goals if organisations
abide by principles of rationality and corporate unity, and most of us respond
better to leaders who seem to understand and care about us.
fusion of rational and humanistic values, whilst both sensible and comfortable,
hardly defines good leadership. There are too many other criteria.
it is a seductive mix that has both spawned and legitimised a leadership
development sub-industry founded on these values. Its aim is to help create
business leaders capable of uniting and integrating an organisation around
clear goals, courageously removing obstacles and taking everyone with them as
of this must be done through listening deeply to the views of many, and
respecting all. It is a tough job, which is so much development support is
development methods follow naturally from these aims. Psychometric frameworks
provide the bench- mark personal characteristics of effective leaders.
Strengths can be built on, whilst “less strong” areas become the focus for
development, or alternatively, may be compensated for.
inventories offer templates for deciding how to behave and relate to others in
different situations. And a burgeoning array of simulated and action learning
processes – structured and unstructured, behavioural and cognitive, interactive
and solitary, abstract and specific – are used to develop leadership practice,
supported by extensive coaching and mentoring processes.
is nothing wrong with these elaborate methodologies per se, and the more they
can be combined to develop the person in a holistic sense, the more valuable
they become. If there is one certainty about leadership it is its irreducible
they overemphasise the significance of style and the interpersonal dimension of
leadership. There is also a tendency to fudge the thorny old question of
whether core leadership qualities can be developed. The assumption is that they
can, although no one is prepared to put money on it.
as importantly, the model of management and organisation that lies behind these
development methods is not often born out in practice. And as with all
fallacies that arise in the world of education and development, there is great
resistance to acknowledging this.
is no point in developing leaders to set and communicate visionary, unifying
goals if, nowadays, these are largely meaningless to people. With few
exceptions, most corporations, even the brand-based examples like Virgin or
McDonald’s, are umbrella organisations made up of a changing population of
that matter, in the new economy corporations can be expected to come and go at
an unprecedented rate. Business leadership now is about creating the conditions
for organisations to thrive as democratised internal markets, characterised by
ebb and flow in the fortunes of constituent business units.
development process should reflect that, emphasising the need to manage
stakeholders, to understand empowerment, and to preside judiciously over the
political system that in truth is the essence of all organisations.
task of leading a business unit mirrors this. It involves treating the
corporate environment as a marketplace, using power well, and being an
effective politician. Only in small businesses that still own themselves is the
role of the leader confined to the simple luxury of pursuing entrepreneurial
needs to stress both leadership content and process. Content is about what a
business is trying to achieve, what it represents, its rationale. It is
fundamentally to do with useable ideas that come from a depth of understanding
of the business. In this way, what a business is not about also becomes clear.
This implies a strong emphasis on honing analytical skills and knowledge.
contrast, leadership process is associated with the use of power and pursuing
content in the context of political opposition.
the leader of a business unit this means setting the agenda and realising it in
the face of potential opposition from corporate executives as well as rivals in
both the internal and external markets. In other words, business leadership
requires rather more than ambition and integrity, essential as these may be.
will not create content, and the interpersonal conventions of good leadership
are of little help in the thick of political negotiation. Few leadership
development programmes, for example, address the problem of how to use power in
a principled way, what it takes to lobby effectively, or how one might
distinguish between constructive and destructive political processes. And if
the development agenda needs to change, so do the assumptions about what can be
developed and over what period of time.
the case of senior and top management, knowledge, cognitive skills and
attitudes towards power are hardly malleable, but they are at least susceptible
to change. With the right process, development can be rapid, although it is not
usually. It always extends beyond a training intervention.
transitions in style, interaction patterns and qualities like ambition take
much longer still, if they ever occur. This is a fundamental point that goes to
the heart of what makes someone a leader.
that respect it is more realistic to help people be who they already are, warts
and all, rather than become people they are not, and probably do not want to
trainers and developers, what does this tell us about business leader
development? Firstly, that we would do well to remind ourselves of how the
process of becoming a leader is lifelong one. It embraces most, if not all,
aspects of the self.
carefully crafted development methods are not necessarily relevant ones, no
matter how assiduously applied. After all, if a thing is not worth doing, it is
not worth doing well.
development processes now need to stress business knowledge, organisational
analysis and the use of power and politics at the expense of style and the
and perhaps most important of all, we must be clear that what counted as
business leadership for most of the 20th century is less appropriate as
organisations are transformed by revolutionary shifts in the business
environment. No wonder there is still as much disagreement as ever about the
definition of leadership.
Butcher is director of the Business Leaders’ Programme at Cranfield School of