The nature of leadership in an uncertain age dominates management thinking. But are leaders really any different now from how they’ve always been? Stephen Overell reports
Are business leaders worthy of admiration? Think of a leader and you don’t tend to think of business people. Depending on your point of view, you might think of Churchill, Trotsky, Lao Tsze, Martin Luther King, Napoleon, Spartacus, Emmeline Pankhurst, Boadicea, Nebuchadnezzar. You don’t think of Henry Ford, the Cadbury brothers, Andy Grove or Richard Branson.
Leaders have a cause. Business people sell stuff. Isn’t there something intrinsically pathetic about those for whom selling stuff becomes a cause? And isn’t there something contemptible about those who manage to convince others to believe selling stuff to be a cause? Isn’t it a cruel, hoodwinking ploy?
Strange questions, you might think, but important ones in the field of leadership. And the only way of finding answers involves another question: is a typical business leader’s primary motivation money?
Obviously, it would be silly to underplay the power of the profit motive. But there are many who think the distinction between the conventional idea of a leader and leadership in the business arena is a false one – the qualities are fundamentally the same. They believe the mark of a great business leader is that money is not the thing that moves them; they are driven by concepts of value, of achievement, of service and of creating things.
“People are not stupid,” says Michael Pounsford, head of Banner McBride, an internal communications consultancy specialising in brand engagement. “Leaders need to be inspirational. They create a vision of the future for people; they create shared meanings out of shared contexts.” In short, leadership involves what used to be known as “moral qualities”.
He reels off several much-lauded chief executives: Terry Leahy at Tesco, Richard Branson at Virgin, The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick. Successful types. But the judgement of time on leadership can be as fickle as that of markets on share price.
Leadership has become monstrous; overshadowing all other subjects in management. Every business school, man- agement consultancy, executive, trainer and pundit has their bit to add to the debate of what it means to be a leader.
Leadership is complicated, diverse. There is no one successful leadership style; they all have commercial value. Leadership is exactly the same as it’s always been – and yet totally different.
In explanation, step forward Sir Ernest Shackleton. Last year there was great interest in the polar explorer. Despite spectacularly failing to cross the Antarctic on foot as he had intended in 1914, he eventually managed to get all his 28 men back home by surviving on melted snow and eating dogs and seals; only one man lost his toes to gangrene.
In the US, investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin and Jenrette bulk-bought accounts of his exploits to dish out to managers as a development tool; here Barclays bank has toyed with modules on Shackleton in its leadership development programmes. Why? Because Shackleton was seen as a great situational leader, always adapting to events, buoying people up, inspiring, convinced and convincing they would get back home. In short, he is now seen as someone with precisely the qualities wanted in corporate leaders du jour: the ability to steer a ship safely through choppy and changeable times.
Yet leadership today, especially when managing educated, skilled workers, demanding increasing levels of fulfilment in their jobs, is more about inspiration – achieving the ubiquitous “buy-in”. The buzzwords are all about “leveraging vision”, “collaboration”, “empowering situational leaders” and “shared beliefs”.
It is not as simple as mimicking the behaviour of Shackleton. Great leaders are a one-off and looking at what makes them tick does not necessarily help the next person in line. It is about asking questions about the nature of what enabled him to lead. And here we arrive at a fundamental dilemma about leadership: is it a matter of character traits, or is leadership something that is created?
Roger Putt, who teaches a course on Shackleton at the Centre for Leadership Studies, based at the University of Exeter, counsels against the hero-worship aspect of leadership development. “Leadership is what leaders create, not what they have,” he says. “You can ask what it is that leaders create in leadership and at its most basic level, the answer is that leaders create certainty. People have a clear sense of purpose and values from the leader. Leadership is about the reduction of uncertainty.” There are many who have found this avenue a fruitful one in analysing leadership in a modern context.
Gene Horan, director of the leadership programme at Ashridge Management College, says, “There is so much information chaos, so much change, that leadership can offer stability in the midst of all that. People don’t trust organisations any more, but they may trust the person who is their direct boss. In that sense, we need leaders to provide enthusiasm in tough times.”
Stefan Wills, Horan’s colleague and programme director at Ashridge, goes further: “It is all about the ability to influence,” he says. “There has been a shift from the autocratic push towards a pull mechanism. Leaders do not choose their followers, rather it is the followers who tend to choose their leaders.”
“‘Followership’ doesn’t sound quite as exciting as leadership. It may never catch on. But with the ever-voguish emotional intelligence still appealing to managers, and the related moves to go one better with ‘spiritual intelligence’, a common strand in modern thinking is to emphasise an idea of ‘stewardship’ of organisations against conceptions of heroic, determined, autocratic leadership styles.”
Heroes to helpers
Effective leaders are increasingly transforming from heroes to helpers,” argues Julian Aviss, director of In-Company Development and Consultancy Services at Roffey Park Management School. “These days, they’re more likely to be found coaching their teams, counselling and supporting them. Such actions challenge established notions of leadership.”
Of a vast number of hackneyed phrases tossed around in management circles, the one that is most used to summarise this phenomenon is “the era of command and control is over”. In this widely held view of the world there have been three phases of business leadership. The first saw brainy bosses bossing around unlearned workers. The second saw what is often called “transactional leadership” and described with the terms “management by exception” and “contingent reward”: paying attention to errors and deviations, concentrating on efficiency and recognising achievement. That is where we have been for the past decade or two: fine for maintaining the status quo, so the theory goes. And developing now – aided by the innumerable consultants and pundits with a direct interest in it – is the generation of “transformational leadership”.
What is a transformational leader? Roger Gill, director of the Leadership Trust, uses four headings – “visionary entrepreneur”, “intelligent strategist”, “moral exemplar” and “charismatic idealist”. He says, “They will motivate and inspire people through their dedication, trustworthiness, trust in others, example, expertise, use of appealing language and their ability to create a world of work in which people can fulfil their aspirations and hopes.”
This is what the new breed of manager will look like. But how does this compare with real life? Is the era of command and control really over?
Francis Stickland, leadership consultant at international HR consultancy Hewitt Associates, says if you look at the FTSE 100 you will find half the companies embody the view that command and control is alive and well.
In many senses, it has never gone away. It obviously works for them. But according to Brian Sutton, general manager of professional skills at QA Training, this is an overhang of Taylorist scientific management, applicable to the industrial age, but far less to the knowledge and information ages. “We have a legacy of people being fitted into roles. But work nowadays is organised around networks of people – they produce the energy of an organisation. Good leaders today understand that they don’t have all the best ideas themselves. It is a question of self-belief and direction-setting.”
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there is a decent case that can be made for the idea that leadership is a field where nothing has fundamentally changed – the substance of what is being talked about is basically the same since time immemorial; leadership is an emotional relationship. But the outward context – the need for leadership and the specific sets of skills to succeed in it – has changed utterly. The paradox is comparable to the debate on whether leaders are born or made. We are no nearer an answer than when the question was first posed. Perhaps the most realistic attitude is that of the army when it selects officers for training at Sandhurst: it believes leaders are born and made.